NEWARK — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey today revisited the most important student speech case — Tinker v. Des Moines — with a friend-of-the-court brief submitted in support of a Bridgeton High School student's right to wear a red armband bearing the word "life."
"While the ACLU seeks to ensure that public schools do not impose religious views on students, we just as fervently fight against school officials who try to silence the religious and political speech of students," said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas.
Bridgeton school administrators banned the student from observing a nationwide day of solidarity against abortion, which she had wanted to mark by distributing anti-abortion literature during non-instructional hours and by remaining silent, letting her red "life" armband speak for her. The school district's initial objections, according to the student's lawsuit, arose from a misreading of the establishment clause, which prevents the government from imposing religion on individuals. But, as the ACLU-NJ explained in its brief, as long as the speaker is a student, not a government official, religious speech deserves the same protections as any other speech.
The school district failed to meet standards that allow exceptions to students' free speech rights, offering no evidence that the student's message would cause a material disruption of the school. Even the district's fairly restrictive dress code policy does not allow the school to sidestep the First Amendment. The dress code, which allows students to accessorize their uniforms with jewelry and hosiery, cannot grant administrators the discretion to ban forms of speech that the Supreme Court expressly protected in Tinker v. Des Moines. In that case, a school did not have the right to prohibit students from wearing black armbands to protest the war in Vietnam.
"Schools cannot silence a student's free speech just because her message might make others uncomfortable," stated Ronald K. Chen of Rutgers Constitutional Litigation Clinic, who submitted the brief on behalf of the ACLU-NJ. "Students do not shed their right to free speech at the school house gate - it's as true today as when the Supreme Court declared it 41 years ago."
The ACLU-NJ ardently defends religious freedom. In recent years, it successfully defended a second-grader's right to sing the song "Awesome God" at an after-school talent show and helped overturn the dismissal of jurors in a criminal trial based on the prosecutor's belief that they had worn overtly religious clothing. A list of other ACLU cases in support of religious freedom can be found at http://www.aclufightsforchristians.com
The case is captioned C.H. v. Bridgeton Board of Education and is proceeding in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey.