Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Things kids "shouldn't be thinking about"

Oy vey. One thing I learned from a summer at Lambda Legal is that school principals have an over-inflated sense of what they can get away with -- as if it never occured to them that the Constitution could effect their adolescent fiefdoms. And so it is that I find myself siding with (oh God, I can't say it!) the Alliance Defense Fund, crafty nemeses of queers, heathens and fornicators everywhere.

This is only going on the complaint and the press release, of course, but it looks as if middle-school principal Jill Bush really stepped in it. She's being sued for allegedly busting up a student's anti-abortion protest and leafletting, despite having substantial notice from his mum and registering no objection before the fact. And having stepped in it, she proceeded to stick her it-encrusted foot in her mouth, explaining that "students shouldn't be thinking about issues like that at your age." Oh dear, I almost feel sorry for her.

My wife works for Planned Parenthood; until recently, she worked at a clinic that performs abortions. They see a lot of pregnant middle-school students (most of whom got pregnant under fairly disturbing circumstances). Any student who is old enough to get knocked up is old enough to know about abortion; she might be in a position to have one. And even if a school makes the grave mistake of not providing comprehensive sex education, students should be able to talk to each other about such matters, and to express whatever opinions about them they please. I shudder at the thought of emotionally vulnerable teens being proselytized about the sin of abortion, but a principal who can ban anti-abortion speech today can ban information on the safety and availability of abortion tomorrow.

And what's more, I can't see how Ms. Bush can position herself on the right side of Tinker v. Des Moines (student speech can be restrict only to prevent interference with school discipline or the rights of others). I suppose that the rule of Harper v. Poway School District (student's pointed anti-gay hate speech may interfere with rights of others), if upheld (as I think it should be) by the Supreme Court, might have application to anti-abortion speech if it takes the form of a fierce moral condemnation of students who have abortions (of which it seems safe to assume there's one, at least, in any large school.). But that is a narrow fact pattern presumably inapplicable to this case, and even it may be a bit of a stretch from Poway.

Of course, if I conclude this subject matter cannot be banned from this school, that begs the question whether any subject matter, regardless of viewpoint or manner of expression, may be banned from any school -- particularly an elementary school -- in its entirety on the grounds of age-inappropriateness. Are there some things, at some ages, that principals can lawfully declare students "shouldn't be thinking about"? If we can distinguish between the learning environment and level of student vulnerability of high schools and universities -- surely Poway's holding would be inapplicable to higher education -- why not between adolescents and younger children? I can think up arguments both ways here, and you don't often see student speech conflicts arising in elementary school to test them, do you?

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