The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

Punishing high school students for condemning school's firing of allegedly abusive teacher


Kevin Cullen at the Boston Globe writes:

A couple months ago, a popular [Duxbury High School] physical education teacher and assistant football coach named Harry Taylor was suspended for what was vaguely described as inappropriate physical contact and verbal abuse of a pair of football players. According to some players I talked to, Taylor told a couple of kids to stop doing something in the new gym, and when they didn't he yelled at them and whacked one of them on the arm….

Taylor was fired this month, with most everybody in Duxbury still in the dark about what he did and why the punishment was so swift and severe.

That didn't sit well with a lot of students who like Taylor. Some started wearing shirts and other items to school emblazoned with a T or "Free T," often in duct tape.

The Duxbury, Mass., school's response? Threaten the students with punishment for their speech. A student whom Cullen quotes says, "Students were called down to the office for exercising their rights as citizens …. I know multiple people who have been issued detentions and have also been threatened with suspension."

Duxbury Public Schools Superintendent Ben Tantillo e-mailed Cullen to say,

Because there are two victims of the teacher's actions in our building, the wearing of 'Free T' constitutes bullying/creating a hostile environment, according to the new state bullying laws.

If Cullen's account is accurate, this seems to be pretty clearly unconstitutional. Public school authorities do have considerable power to control speech by their students, for instance if it creates substantial disruption to the school, or contains vulgarities, or is reasonably seen as nonpolitical advocacy of drug abuse. But even this considerable power doesn't extend to suppressing speech simply because it condemns government officials—here, school authorities—for their treatment of a teacher, and expresses support for the teacher. And that remains true even if the teacher's supposed victims might feel offended, or even socially ostracized, by this criticism of the government's actions.

Thanks to Mark Kemper for the pointer.