When students protest abortion, can schools draw the line?

Students with deep religious convictions are fast turning public schools into the newest battleground over abortion much to the dismay … Continued

Students with deep religious convictions are fast turning public schools into the newest battleground over abortion much to the dismay of beleaguered school officials.

The most recent controversy involves Annie Zinos, a sixth grade student in Minnesota, who was prohibited by her school from sharing pro-life literature with her classmates. Last week, Annie and her family filed suit against school officials for violating her First Amendment rights.

Meanwhile in New Mexico, a group of evangelical high school students lost a round last month in their fight to give classmates “fetus dolls” with a pro-life message attached. A three-judge panel of the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the school district’s authority to stop the doll distribution.

Pro-life protesters in schools are a recent development, but students protesting for what they believe during the school day are a familiar part of our history.

From Billy Gobitis refusing to salute the flag in the 1930s, to Barbara Johns organizing against miserable conditions in black schools in the 1950s, to Mary Beth Tinker wearing an armband to protest the Vietnam War in the 1960s, students of conviction have not been shy about exercising their First Amendment rights in public schools.

In every generation, school officials react (and often over-react) by attempting to keep the lid on student protests. And in every generation, the courts are faced with determining when and where schools may draw the line on student religious and political speech.

Now pro-life kids are taking their turn defining student rights by challenging school officials in court.

In the New Mexico appeals court decision, students have already bumped up against the limits of freedom allowed under the First Amendment not because of the point of view they espouse, but because of the disruption they stirred by espousing it.

When the pro-life students first distributed the fetus dolls, chaos ensued. According to Education Week, teachers complained that students were throwing the dolls, using them to plug toilets, and in other ways causing serious trouble.

Not surprisingly, the court sided with the school district by ruling that further distribution of the fetus dolls would likely cause major disruption.

Even the strongest U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding free speech rights of students, Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent School District, makes clear that school officials may draw the line of student expression when they can reasonably forecast that it would cause substantial disruption.

The censorship of Annie in Minnesota, however, is a very different case.

The pro-life fliers she distributed “Save the baby humans. Stop abortion.” caused some students to complain that they were offended. But the school failed to show that the fliers caused any significant disruption.

Under the First Amendment, students are free to share their religious or political views, even if those views offend others. But they are not free to create mayhem in the school.

School officials at Annie’s school appear to have misread Supreme Court precedents to mean that schools may censor any distribution of literature by students they deem contrary to the school’s mission or not age appropriate for middle school.

It’s true that the Supreme Court has upheld the authority of schools to censor vulgar or obscene student speech and to censor student speech that occurs in a school-sponsored context such as the school newspaper.

But otherwise, Tinker still rules: School officials may not censor student religious or political speech unless they can show that such speech will substantially disrupt the school or interfere with the rights of others.

Chances are very good that Annie Zinos will prevail in her fight to distribute her pro-life fliers. And if she does, she’ll have Billy, Barbara, and especially Mary Beth to thank.

Haynes is senior scholar at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington.

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  • cricket44

    Sure, let her distribute the literature. My daughter’s friend was handed something along those lines on the street and the three of us sat there and systematically pointed out every single lie. Had it happened in school, my daughter would have been the first one telling this girl where she was wrong.

  • GlenB27

    I remember the Tinker case well. Her protest was far more unpopular than the anti-abortion protests of today.

  • one nation

    What would these students want their parents to do if they where raped?

  • lynnman1

    Rape is a difficult case but it is disingenious to use it as the argument for the other 99% of abortions that are not tied to rape or incest. The question is when life begins. Whenever that is begins the point that we, as a civilized society, should not be ending that life.

    Fritz Baumgartner, MD
    We can approach abortion from many perspectives: Biological, embryological, genetic, philosophical, social and economic, at the very least. As for the first three – my approach as a scientist, physician, surgeon, and simply someone who finished medical school, is factual. There is no more pivotal moment in the subsequent growth and development of a human being than when 23 chromosomes of the father join with 23 chromosomes of the mother to form a unique, 46-chromosomed individual, with a gender, who had previously simply not existed. Period. No debate. There is no more appropriate moment to begin calling a human “human” than the moment of fertilization. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, because it would be a degradation of factual embryology to say it would be any other moment. For example, some pro-abortion zealots and even, shockingly, some disingenuous physicians claim it is the moment of primitive notochord formation (nonsense!) or, even more absurdly, the moment of implantation. (It defies sanity to claim that the implantation of a developing blastocyst onto a uterine wall defines humanity more than does the completion of an entirely new DNA map, which defines a new organism’s existence). And to say that “size” is a determinant of humanity, of course, is an unscientific reason to deny an embryo his or her human status. In any event, it is an embryological reality, which no embryology textbook on earth denies, that

  • lynnman1

    Or maybe she could have taught your daughter things that you may have misled her on.

    Fritz Baumgartner, MD We can approach abortion from many perspectives: Biological, embryological, genetic, philosophical, social and economic, at the very least. As for the first three – my approach as a scientist, physician, surgeon, and simply someone who finished medical school, is factual. There is no more pivotal moment in the subsequent growth and development of a human being than when 23 chromosomes of the father join with 23 chromosomes of the mother to form a unique, 46-chromosomed individual, with a gender, who had previously simply not existed. Period. No debate. There is no more appropriate moment to begin calling a human “human” than the moment of fertilization. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, because it would be a degradation of factual embryology to say it would be any other moment. For example, some pro-abortion zealots and even, shockingly, some disingenuous physicians claim it is the moment of primitive notochord formation (nonsense!) or, even more absurdly, the moment of implantation. (It defies sanity to claim that the implantation of a developing blastocyst onto a uterine wall defines humanity more than does the completion of an entirely new DNA map, which defines a new organism’s existence). And to say that “size” is a determinant of humanity, of course, is an unscientific reason to deny an embryo his or her human status. In any event, it is an embryological reality, which no embryology textbook on earth denies, that

  • Frequent Wind

    tl; dr lynnman1. No one disputes that a fetus is “human.” The question is whether it enjoys the same protections as a born human. It doesn’t.

  • Trailridin

    Here’s where I have a real problem. So religiously inclined parents have hissy fits over schools teaching sex education at the middle school level, but are willing to fight for the right of this girl to distribute misinformation about a legal option for dealing with the outcome of not having adquate sex education or access to birth control. Just another reason for me to become even more convinced that religious zealots know nothing about the actual requirements for civil governance and can not be trusted to govern anything because they never consider the any view that doesn’t match their religous one, even though a large proportion of the populace doesn’t share their beliefs. If I had my way, there would be a religious test to hold office: you shouldn’t have one.

  • ThomasBaum

    Frequent Wind

    You wrote, “tl; dr lynnman1. No one disputes that a fetus is “human.” The question is whether it enjoys the same protections as a born human. It doesn’t”.

    Are you saying that a fetus is a human being same as a born human is a human being?.

  • lynnman1

    When you were 1 years of age, you are not the same as you are now. We are changing and developing all through the process of life. The size does not make you more human or more valuable as a human – the fact that you are a live human does. When does that begin? The doctor’s educated comments above gives you the facts.

  • lynnman1

    Trailridin – I don’t know you but you sound both judge mental and prejudice – plus you make a lot if assumptions in your statement. No one has mentioned religion. Pro-life atheist groups do not mention religion in their arguments. The deal with facts and being humane.

  • one nation

    lynnman1, yes rape is a different as well a difficult case but what would these students want their parents to do if they where raped or got pregnant on a date? A child is justly due the two parents to full raise the child to be able to live properly in their part of the world not depending on the government for most of the child’s economic support. What would you do lynnman1?

  • one nation

    lynnman1, when is a human being a human being?

  • lynnman1

    From the beginning of their life until the end. I am not aware of any other factual possibility. Are you?

  • lynnman1

    First – what would you do in the other 99% of the situations after a new life has begun?

    For rape, I have taught my daughters how t o be careful but in the tragic case t hat it happens we also discussed going immediately to the hospital. I understand that that is easier said than done in a time of shock. I also told them they could come to us and we would take care of them. If a new life has begun, I do not believe another act of violence would be right and we would find a way to get counseling and care and then decide if adoption o f raising the child would be the right answer. That would be their decision. Taking another’s life can never be our decision unless it is in self defense. Probably one of the most difficult situations one could face – but unfortunately it is often used as a false argument for abort in any situation.

  • Brettt

    One nation – There are a lot of five year olds who have a parent walk out on them and cause a parent to “full raise the child to be able to live properly in their part of the world not depending on the government for most of the child’s economic support.”

    If we follow your line of reasoning here, then infanticide or the killing of these five year olds should be deemed okay.

  • lynnman1

    If you follow my logic – exactly the opposite would be true.