Dear Dawg: You may have heard there is an election coming up soon! We are seeing a lot of political activity among the students, and wondering what we should be doing about it. Suggestions? MY FIRST TIME TO DEAL WITH A PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION.
DEAR FIRST TIMER: It may be a more contentious election than usual, but the legal standards have not changed. So let’s go over some basics.
- We hope you are encouraging students who are old enough to vote to do so. Research shows that people who vote the first time they are eligible to do so are more likely to become lifetime voters, which is a good thing. So make sure those 18-year olds are registered and know where to vote.
- Students have the right to express their political views at school, as long as they don’t create a material and substantial disruption of school. This goes back to Tinker v. Des Moines, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969. The Dawg, being an old Dawg, remembers 1969. It was pretty contentious also. And Mary Beth Tinker’s peacenik black arm band, protesting the War in Vietnam, was not well received by everyone in the conservative city of Des Moines, Iowa. Furthermore, let’s remember that the principal of the school had specifically ordered that no black arm bands would be permitted. So you have an 8th grader openly defying the principal’s order, and wearing a symbol that some teachers and students found highly offensive. And yet the Supreme Court (7-2) ruled that she had a right to do it.
- Tinker is the starting point. It’s the default position, and you move away from its holding only if you have a good reason to do so. What’s a good reason? You have to have a REASONABLE FORECAST of a MATERIAL AND SUBSTANTIAL DISRUPTION of school activities. Let’s break that down.
- A “material and substantial disruption” means that the work of the school is disturbed, interrupted, seriously impeded. The Court specifically told us that “a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint” would not cut it. If you, or your staff members, feel uncomfortable, or strongly dislike the viewpoint expressed by the student, you may just have to live with that. You are not yet at the point of “material and substantial” disruption.
- A “reasonable forecast” means that you don’t have to wait until all hell breaks loose, but you have to have some basis for your belief that it’s about to. Your experience and insight as a school administrator should inform your ability to make a “forecast” that is reasonable.
- Let’s mention a few things that do not amount to a “material and substantial” disruption of school.
*Ugly criticism of the principal on social media or the news media;
*A phone call from a board member telling you to “do something” about this;
*Your fear and anxiety.
7. Let’s mention a few things that would support a “reasonable forecast.”
*Students bullying other students;
*Students fighting, or threatening to do so;
*Credible threats of violence;
*Teachers and counselors reporting an increased level of student stress, causing disengagement from learning.
Keep in mind that bullying, fights, threats of violence, and student stress can happen at school for many different reasons. Be prepared to explain why you think that there is a causal connection between a student’s political expression and these consequences.
8. What makes your forecast “reasonable”? It has to be based on information, not intuition. What are people telling you? What do you hear? What do you see? What has happened in the past under similar circumstances?
9. And of course, you have to be evenhanded about this. You can’t permit T-shirts and caps that favor one point of view, and bar the opposing point of view.
10. Remember that symbolic speech is “speech” protected by the First Amendment. Mary Beth Tinker never uttered a word, and yet, the Supreme Court said that it was her right to “free speech” that was infringed. Taking a knee on the football field during the National Anthem is symbolic speech.
Best of luck, First Timer, navigating this election season!
DAWG BONE: ONLY 15 MORE DAYS…
Tomorrow: Toolbox Tuesday!!