Freedom of speech questioned in Dubuque school's actions - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Freedom of speech questioned in Dubuque school's actions

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DUBUQUE (KWWL) -- Some parents and students question whether Hempstead High School violated students' freedom of speech.

This week, Hempstead officials asked parents to support them in asking students not to wear solid white t-shirts to school. This came after administrators learned of some students' plan to wear the shirts to school as a show of white supremacy, principal Lee Kolker said in a Tuesday press release.

When a few students wore the shirts anyway, administrators asked them to change or go home, according to the release.

"It is our responsibility as teachers and administrators to focus on student safety and the overall learning environment for all students, not just the small percentage of students involved in the rumors," Kolker wrote in the release.

The release also said the school's actions brought up the question of First Amendment rights.

Iowa Department of Education spokesperson Phil Roeder said, "the freedom of speech for students is pretty much a top priority and something that Iowa, in particular, is famous for," referring to the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District Supreme Court case, in which the Court upheld a middle school student's right to wear a black arm band in protest of the Vietnam War.

Mary Lynn Neuhaus is a lawyer and teaches communication law at Loras College.

She said, "your Constitutional rights, for teachers and students, are not checked at the schoolhouse gate, and the United States Supreme Court was very strong in that Tinker v. Des Moines Board of Education case - political protest, as long as it's not disruptive, is allowed."

However, there seems to be a disagreement over what constitutes "disruptive."

Roeder said, "if it's part of an organized effort that may cause a disruption in the classroom or the school building, then the principals and the superintendents do have a discretion to provide some direction in order to make sure a good learning environment for all the students."

Neuhaus, on the other hand, said "United States Supreme Court says threat of disruption is not enough, and they were very clear in Tinker v. Des Moines Board of Education that there has to be more than disruption or the threat of disruption or the promise of disruption. Political speech is protected, and that's a good thing for all of us, whether we're at Hempstead High School, wanting to wear a white t-shirt, or whether we're on the steps of the United States Capitol, protesting something we want to be changed."

It remains to be seen whether this precautionary measure to keep white shirts out of class will continue on in 2011.

Kolker said in Tuesday's press release that the school is developing an action plan that will work to further promote safety and a harassment-free learning environment.

Students at Hempstead High School are now on winter break, although school offices remained open Wednesday. Phone calls to the principal and superintendent for further comment Wednesday were not returned.

Online Reporter Becca Habegger

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