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EDITORIAL: Student 'rights' must compete with school's needs

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Friday, September 08, 2017 12:01 am

Some Hoosier high school students decided they wanted to get in on the fun of the Great Confederate Freakout sweeping the country, but school officials wisely put a stop to it.

About two dozen Lapel High School students showed up for the new school year wearing Confederate flag clothing and symbols. They got away with it the first day, so they did it again for a second day.

That's when the school clamped down and changed its dress code, banning Confederate symbolism and all Confederate gear, including T-shirts and sweatshirts displaying the controversial flag.

And school officials did it for the right reason: Not because they disagreed with the students' political point of view or disputed their right to express one. But because students were disrupting the school's mission, which cannot be tolerated.

It would be nice to report that the school is on firm constitutional ground, but, alas, the Supreme Court has been less than definitive.

In 1969's Tinker v. Des Moines, a case involving students wearing armbands to protest the Vietnam War, the court affirmed the students' protest as constitutionally protected speech at the heart of the First Amendment. Students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” it famously said.

But in 1986's Bethel v. Fraser, the court said that “the constitutional rights of students at public school are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults.” In 1988's Hazlewood School District v. Kuhlmeier, it said the rights of students are applied “in light of the special characteristics of the school environment.” And in 2007's Morse v. Frederick, it said it was not a violation of the free speech clause of the First Amendment to restrict a student's speech at a school-supervised event promoting illegal drug use.

As confusing as the constitutional issue is, the school is on firm ethical ground. School authorities and students do not exist in a microcosm, with the student “citizens” having the same rights in relation to educators-as-”government” that exist between citizen and government in the larger society. Students' rights are limited by educators' need to maintain a structured learning environment. Adults are in school to teach, and the students are there to learn, not exercise their rights. They are not equal partners.

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