December 3, 2008
Superintendent Richard B. Carter
Principal Darcy Weisner
Walla Walla Public Schools
364 South Park Street
Walla Walla, WA99362
Dear Principal Darcy Weisner and Superintendent Richard B. Carter:
We are deeply concerned about the recent suspension of Meagan White from Walla WallaHigh School because of a bumper sticker on her vehicle.
Walla Walla School Board’s official “Freedom of Expression” policy states that “students are strictly prohibited from the use of vulgar and/offensive terms in the classroom or assembly settings.” (Emphasis added.) It goes on to say that the superintendent may develop further policy that assures “freedom of opinion while maintaining orderly conduct of the school.”
While you may find the content of the bumper sticker inappropriate or even “vulgar and/or offensive,” Meagan’s car was simply parked in the school parking lot: it was not displayed in a classroom or assembly setting, and it did not disrupt the “orderly conduct” of the school. In fact, not only does the school policy appear not to prohibit a bumper sticker on a car, it actually implies that this kind of expression is permitted.
We understand that you rely on Bethel v. Fraser. Bethel dealt with an “elaborate, graphic, and explicit sexual metaphor” in a student speech given at a school assembly attended by the entire student body. The student speaker had been advised by teachers not to deliver the speech because of its objectionable content. The Court found that its “pervasive sexual innuendo …was plainly offensive to both teachers and students.” The speech was interrupted by shouts and gestures from the audience, and some teachers later interrupted regular lessons to discuss it.
Under these circumstances, the Supreme Court recognized the school’s right to prohibit “lewd and indecent speech” which "substantially interferes with the educational process.”
The facts in Bethel are not analogous. This situation involves a bumper sticker containing a line from a popular song that is undoubtedly recognizable to most students for exactly what it is – a satirical lyric. The car, parked in the school lot, apparently attracted little or no attention from other students and caused no disruption.
While the school has considerable authority to control what can and cannot be said in classrooms and school assemblies, and to prevent disruption to the educational program, its authority over student expression is not without limits. By attempting to extend its authority to this situation, we believe that you have crossed the line drawn by the First Amendment. Moreover, whatever possible rationale you might assert for restricting student expression in the parking lot can hardly justify the threat to extend your speech-restrictive policies to include the general public attending school sponsored events, such as athletic competitions.
Finally, we have received reports that school officials are photographing Meagan’s bumper as a means of monitoring her activity. Such a surveillance measure serves little purpose beyond that of intimidation, and raises additional constitutional concerns.
Taken as a whole, these actions reveal a gross disregard for the constitutional values that underlie public education, which exists to foster an informed and engaged citizenry composed of individuals who are capable of thinking independently and engaging in discussion, dialogue and debate. These goals are not advanced by seeking to silence any form of expression you dislike.
In our view, the disciplinary action taken against Meagan White was, at a minimum, unwarranted. We strongly urge you to reconsider and repeal it, and to remove all references to it from her records.
National Coalition Against Censorship