- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 19, 2007

School officials nationwide are increasingly limiting student expression as they see fit, in many cases side-stepping speech protection laws until they are forced to back down, said the head of a national student press advocacy group.

Mark Goodman, a lawyer who serves as executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, said cases like that of a North Carolina principal, who drew national outrage last week after he refused to let students wear U.S. or any other national flag on their clothes, show a lack of proper civic education.

“We are hearing more … problems and conflicts like this occurring at schools all across the country,” Mr. Goodman said in reaction to the case in Sampson County, N.C. “I do believe that school administrators perceive some green light by the courts to engage in more extensive control of student expression than they have ever engaged in before.”

He said his experience has shown that administrators only feel limited in their control by community reaction.

“If they think they can get away with it, or their actions won’t be known, they are increasingly likely to attempt to censor student expression in ways that I would argue the law doesn’t allow, or more importantly, good education practice shouldn’t allow,” Mr. Goodman said. “Unless you have a student or a family willing to take their school to court, the school can get away with ignoring the law when it suits them.”

After much national attention and a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union condemning the school policy as a “violation of the students’ rights to free speech under the First Amendment,” the no-flag rule was reversed.

Sheldon E. Steinbach, senior attorney in the education practice at the District law firm of Dow Lohnes, said the Sampson County school district should have known better.

“The growing sensitivity to political correctness has led some school districts to overreact to students bearing political symbols of any kind,” Mr. Steinbach said. “Surely, sophisticated high school administrators should be able to differentiate between apparel that could cause a ruckus and those that are clearly patriotic in nature.”

This is not the first incident to spark public outcry over student patriotism and free speech. In 2005, 13-year-old Raven Furbert, a student at Mont Pleasant Middle School in Schenectady, N.Y., was threatened with suspension after she wore a homemade necklace with red, white and blue beads.

She said she made the necklace to wear out of respect and love for several family members who were serving in the military in Iraq, but school officials said it violated a dress code banning gang-related items.

Raven’s mother filed a civil rights lawsuit against the school. The school claimed in its legal petition for dismissal — which was denied — that Raven’s age did not entitle her to the “full panoply of First Amendment rights.”

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