Constitutional Free Speech in Public Schools

Jonathan Arthur, a Civil Rights Attorney with Thomas H. Roberts & Associates, PC in Richmond Virginia, grew up in Montgomery County, Virginia.   For nearly 30 years the law firm has been defending the Constitutional rights of citizens.  Attorney Arthur is concerned with the violation of the free speech of students at Christiansburg High School – 20 students were suspended today on 9/17/2015, being punished for exercising that right in this democracy.  Following is his editorial opinion.

***************

“The vigilant protection of Constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than the community of American schools… That they are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes”

–         Abraham Fortas, Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Today, Christiansburg High School, suspended twenty students for violating its policy banning the Confederate flag.   That this flag is a symbol, and a controversial one, is not questioned.  For some it represents heritage and being born and raised in the South.  For others, it is a symbol of hate and racism.  There is no denying, however, that wearing the Confederate flag is an expression of speech; speech that Christiansburg High School seems intent on censoring.  The United States Supreme Court has spoken on this issue before. It has stated that when it comes to expressions of “pure speech” such as wearing a black armband, or in this case a Confederate flag, unless a school can show with specificity that this speech will materially and substantially interfere with discipline and operation of the school, the ban violates the First Amendment to the Constitution of these United States.   Christiansburg has not pointed to any such interference.

In their press release, Montgomery County Public Schools has pointed to nebulous, amorphous, concerns of “[i]ncidents of racial tension” and “continued racial friction” as justifying the abrogation of their student’s First Amendment rights.   This does not meet the threshold; it is not specific, material, or substantial.   Having spoken with students at Christiansburg High, they assure me that the “racial friction” and “racial tension” that the Montgomery County High School cites does not in fact, exist and further, that there has not been a race-motivated incident at that school which materially and substantially disrupted operations in the past decade.  If this is indeed the case, then Christiansburg High’s policy, and their subsequent punishment of the students is unconstitutional.   Not only is it unconstitutional, it is dangerous.

These students are young adults, in a year or two they will be out in the real world, interacting with people with whom they do not agree.  They will be charged with participating in our democracy, our market place of ideas, in order to eventually lead this country and be the stewards of the great ideals upon which our nation was founded.   What lesson has the Christiansburg High School taught these students, indeed all the students who have witnessed this unfortunate event?   Has it taught them that freedom of speech is paramount, that the founding principles of our government are the bulwarks of liberty?  Has it taught them how to interact with people whose ideas differ from their own?   I fear not.   Instead, I fear we have strangled the free mind at its source and taught our youth that the best way to deal with ideas with which they differ is to censor them, the best way to interact with our fellow man is to oppress their ideas.  This is as dangerous as it is unconstitutional.

Jonathan M. Arthur, Esq.
Thomas H. Roberts & Associates, PC
105 S 1st Street
Richmond, VA 23219
(804) 783-2000 x 107
(804) 783-2105 Fax

www.robertslaw.org

2014 “Virginia’s Legal Elite” – Virginia Business
Selected by Virginia Attorneys