Constitutional Law and Free Speech in School: Student Reactions

Paul Wright

Paul Wright is a history teacher at Radnor High school — his alma mater — where he has taught since the 1999-2000 school year. In addition to teaching, Paul coaches squash and is a co-founder of JumpStart Mainline, a week-long summer camp for rising 12th graders to work with teachers on college essays.

From Allison Zmuda:

I came across this article a few months ago — a student-led high school newspaper who looked into a brand new principal (a relatively innocuous assignment) and uncovered questionable credentials. The challenge — how do you support students when they are pursuing an inquiry that can potentially impact a community? Superintendent of the Pittsburg Schools reflected on encouraging them to seek out the truth vs. unraveling official decisions/policies.

I reached out to Paul Wright, a dear friend and fellow Social Studies teacher, as both of us love the examination of constitutional law in relation to free speech in school.

One of the reasons why I enjoy using these cases in class is how real they can be for students. Real in that these things actually happen to kids. Real because something as simple as an off-color student council speech can go all the way to the Supreme Court. Real because kids have to begin to evaluate how the events in their lives can be seen as the same or different to those of people outside of school.

One interesting facet to using these cases is how often my students seem to agree with the kids in the cases, but then when you probe, or make them look more deeply at the case itself, some students will shift their position—that is, they see the school’s side of things.

When the student reporters in Pittsburg did such marvelous journalism (the main compliment paid to them in and outside of the journalism community), it offered that perfect opportunity again for my own students to link what they knew already with an authentic real world incident, and predict what might happen given the data they had already collected in previous cases.

In fact, it was the perfect follow up to what I thought had been their last assessment—balancing the in-school cases we had studied so extensively with the out-of-school case of Brown, where the majority found in favor of video game makers and against the California law preventing minors from purchasing violent video games. That seems to sit in direct opposition to the trend of those school cases, where the parameters of a school (mostly in its status in loco parentis) gave administrators the right to curtail students behavior.

Along comes Pittsburg, KS, and the school administration encouraging the student reporters to do their jobs, and even acknowledging the systemic oversight these reporters discovered. That of course results in the resignation of an administrator with at least a sketchy background. That led me to ask my folks about how what they knew could enable them to predict what might happen if the SC got involved. Prediction is pretty high on Maslow’s hierarchy. Their informed predictions showed me what they had learned, and truth be told, some of the gaps in what I had taught them also.

The Assignment

The student blogs included here are one of a number of assessments my Advanced (middle level) 9th graders were asked to take on as a part of our almost quarter long study of the Supreme Court. My colleagues and I agreed when we were planning post-election that the Court was sure to be a hot topic, given the open seat which existed at election time. So we pushed it to follow the inauguration, knowing conversations would begin as soon as the President was sworn in.

Over the years, I have found that the cases involving kids and the Supreme Court often give the most traction for studying the role of the court in American society. Of course the argument can be made (pardon the pun) for classic cases such as Plessy, or Loving, or Schenck and MANY others. Sort of like cousins on a wedding guest list, though, limited time requires cutting from one’s wish list.

So my class studied the Supreme Court through the specific lens of cases which famously involve students in school: Tinker v. Iowa, NJ v. TLO, Bethel v. Fraser, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, Vernonia v. Acton, Morse v. Frederick, and a non-school case new to me this year, Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. The first six cases trace the evolution of the Court’s views on the rights and responsibilities of students in school, and of school oversight of students during the school day. I encourage any Gov or History teacher not familiar with this string to take a look at them as a set. From the landmark (or perhaps high water mark) Tinker, what kids may and may not expect of their rights in schools has trended away from the famous protections kept “beyond the schoolhouse gate” to decisions based upon whether or not school locker rooms have stall doors, or whether what one party considers “gibberish” may actually be seen as a powerful pro-drug message. The last case, Brown, is not about schools, but the Court’s deliberations on the rights of parents and children to purchase violent video games asks kids to reflect on the rights within school vs. what we often casually call “the real world.” (**happy to share my ideas and assessments–drop a line at paul.wright@rtsd.org).

So this had made up most of third quarter, and frankly we were finishing up, when the student reporters from the school newspaper from Pittsburg, KS went viral. I sent it to Allison, and she immediately asked if my kids would write about it. And so they have.

I asked them to read the original article in The Booster Redux, entitled “District Hires New Principal: Background Called into Question After Discrepancies Arise.” Next, we read the rendition of events from the Kansas City Star, “New Pittsburg, KS Principal resigns after student journalists question her credentials.”

Then my class was offered the choice of these journal prompts to begin a response:


POSSIBLE PROMPTS TO CONSIDER AS STARTERS FOR YOUR BLOG JOURNAL:

  • This story reminds of of one or more of the cases we studied because…
  • If this became a lawsuit that made it to the Supreme Court, I believe that members of the Court would react this way…
  • Given what I have studied about kids and schools and the Supreme Court, this case makes me think that…
  • or a better one that YOU come up with!

RUBRIC:

  • 15 lines
  • Journal/blog style, but ready for publication
  • Shares personal reflections as well as references to our studies in class

And with that, they were off…and you can hear some of their voices below.

NOTE: They have been corrected only for spelling and glaring punctuation errors. Otherwise, as I believe proper for a journal format, the writing and voice (and perhaps an off fact or two) are as they were submitted. A more formal assessment would naturally yield a closer read.

The Student Responses

Throughout the school year and the cases studied, I see some things that happened in this school in common with cases such as Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260, (1988) where we have students that shared their opinions and thoughts, in this case it was about the effects of teen pregnancy and divorce on kids in the school. This particular case, that’s not actually a case, we can see how the kids took the matter in their own hands to know if the person they were hiring was good for them, the faculty staff and the whole school. After all the cases studied in class the possibility of it becoming a Supreme Court case is not small, and if that happened we would be able to predict in a certain degree how the Court would rule. Putting all sides into perspective the kids would be the ones in the spotlight, we would see some Justices who probably would raise the question as how did a couple of students got a better look into the past of the future principal and the school board wasn’t able to find that, another thing that would be put into consideration is the protection of such principal’s past as into her rights of privacy. This would definitely be a case with few unexpected turns as knowing how certain Justices would directly go to the Principal side we wouldn’t be able to estimate how many of them would rule into the side of the school as this would be an incredible yet hard case if it ever got to the Court. If it ever comes to it, it would be interesting to see how it would be dealt with and in my opinion knowing all points and seeing other cases, this would be the one case were the students would have a bigger and better chance of winning.

Maria K.

As Mr. Wright would say, “journalists burn shoe leather”. This refers to the hard work and tenacity that journalists must have. Most would think that this expression must be earned from experience, not in this case. At Pittsburg High School in Kansas, a group of young students helped make their school a better place and showed just how much they care about their school. Thanks to number of hours put into researching, the students found some shocking information about their newly hired principal. According to the students research, Amy Robertson was deemed to be unfit as a high school principal. Evidently, the university she attended raised some questions about it’s legitimacy and if she had the correct credentials to become principal. In past Supreme Court cases there are clear indications showing the rights of students minimizing over the years, but they take invasion of privacy very seriously. If there were a lawsuit from either side, evidence suggests that the Supreme Court usually votes in favor of the schools actions. Except in some very rare scenarios, like the Tinker vs Iowa School District, but that was a far different case than this situation. I believe that we can guess where most the Justices stand on this issue. For example, a conservative opinion such as Justice Clarence Thomas would oppose the students actions because he might think that they do not have a warrant to invade someone’s privacy. Supreme Court case or not, this was truly a caring act of
selflessness by the group of students.

Landers M.

Recent eruption came from Pittsburg High School in Kansas, after a article came out and questioned there soon to be principal and her credibility. This high school has gotten much praise from big time news chains for digging up the truth, but did the students cross a line of privacy? This question can be argued endlessly, but the side I have chosen is the students.

Their research easily came from the publics eye. Anyone had access to it if they truly looked hard enough. This isn’t slander of a woman’s reputation, this is the truth that the students at that high school uncovered.

There is no evasion of privacy since all the records were available for the publics eye. So the right to sue is out if the questions since she set herself up from lying on her resume, and forging a fake college diploma. The students at the high school did every journalists duty which is to discover the facts and dig up the truth.

The students did not break any laws or amendments. Since the students are under the school roof while doing this research the rules are somewhat different then when you are out of school. You’re rights are somewhat restricted in a school building. This situation can always be connected or tied to the Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier which relates to censorship in schools and how teachers and principals can regulate what goes in school news paper. The students at Pittsburg High School deserves all the recognition they are getting.

Taylor S.

If this became a lawsuit that made it to the Supreme Court, I believe that members of the Court would most likely favor the school. The kids were just challenging themselves. They voluntarily investigated the unknown information that even adults couldn’t handle. The Supreme Court wouldn’t disagree with this because an experience like this will have a benefit on the students and the whole school. There is no law that states that students can’t investigate someone’s private profile. According to Bethel School Dist. No. 403 v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675 (1986), the majority said, “The schools…may determine that the essential lessons of civil, mature conduct cannot be conveyed in a school that tolerates…[dirty or] offensive speech and conduct such as that indulged in by this confused boy.” Their research didn’t disturb anyone or was an offensive speech, in fact it was the opposite. If it wasn’t for them, who knows what would have happened to their school? The students should really be honored and praised for protecting the school. I believe that students do have the right to investigate with the school’s permission, after all, that person might be their new principal. They should be able to know what kind of a person he/she is. These students shouldn’t be in trouble for researching information that are accessible to everyone using the Internet. In my opinion, the students research are barely different from a biography research. It’s your chose to put up information about yourself that can be seen by millions of people online.

Uijin K.

A school newspaper used the power of the press to reveal that their newly hired principal had multiple illegitimate credentials. Dr. Amy Robertson, who planned to begin working at Pittsburg High School on July 1st, was seen as the perfect choice by administrators, but a group of students involved with the school newspaper found “inconsistencies in Robertson’s credentials”. After completing thorough and extensive research on Robertson’s claims, the staff of the newspaper discovered that many of Robertson’s credentials were false. The work of the students at Pittsburg High School is extremely impressive and exercises the First Amendment in a vital way, but if it turned into a court case, would the Supreme Court Justices be on their side? It seems obvious that the students did the right thing and are protected by the constitution, but a history of declining freedom for students in school environments makes it a little more complicated. In the case of Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1980), a school newspaper wrote two controversial articles about teen pregnancy and divorce, featuring the stories of students who attended the school at the time. Even though the names of the students were changed, the principal was concerned that some students and parents would be offended, and had the articles taken out of the publication. The Supreme Court sided with the principal, in which Justice Byron White stated in the Majority Opinion that a student cannot be punished for expressing their views “unless school authorities have reason to believe that such expression will substantially interfere with the work of the school or [step on] the rights of other students.” However, the students at Pittsburg High School did not step on the rights of anybody; they merely exposed the truth in a completely factual way. The students found out that many of Dr. Robertson’s claims were false through public records, and if they were to be punished for this, it would reveal clear corruption in not only the school system, but in the government’s actions regarding Constitution. What the students did was especially important in a time like this, where the truth is often seen as a biased attack, and facts are brushed off as opinions.

Dylan R.

Given what I have studied about kids and schools and the Supreme court, this case makes me think that the fourth amendment should protect Dr. Amy Robertson’s’ personal accounts of education and information. I think that it was a little unclear whether the doctor was lying about her degree in education or if it was vise versa; if the university where she acquired these so called degrees. I thought the schools intuitive reasoning for researching their incoming principle was smart. It makes perfect sense to clarify who will gain authority in their school. Going back to the fourth amendment, Dr. Robertson has the same rights as any other american however, Robertson had invalid degrees that may have been illegally bought. So, if this case went to court I think the Doctor would win this case because of past cases such as New Jersey v. T. L. O. In this case, a student was searched on school grounds for drugs in her personal bag. She sued the school in hopes of the fourth amendment to protect her however, the school won because she was on a school premises. Even though this she is not a child her rights can’t protect her because she is trying to qualify for a job and couldn’t because of her invalid education degrees. In my opinion, the Fourth Amendment cannot always protect your actions, especially when one gets themselves involved in a situation such as this one.

Sophia M.

According to “The Kansas City Star” article about the New Pittsburg high school principal that resigned, I was shocked to find out why, and how. Because of my class’ recent studies on Supreme Court cases regarding High school students, I have an opinion on the work that these students did. Basically, several students, that are reporters and journalists for their school, recently have came across valuable information about their new principal, Amy Robinson. This information, that they wrote about, managed to get Amy to resign. The information, being her lack of credentials, is a great way to show how smart high school students actually are. Many people believe that we are all just kids and don’t fully understand the real world, which can be correct in some cases, but not in all students. My personal opinion on the situation is that the Pittsburg students did a remarkable thing. They managed to research their own principal and find information that surpassed the school board. Think about it, a school board is made up of extremely intelligent adults who, for the most part, have been in their profession for many years, so they know what their doing, and information that was extremely valuable about their own principal has what you can say “flown right over their heads.”

Cameron K.

Although we never find out why Mrs. Robertson attempted to become a school’s principal with faulty degrees, we do know what she planned to do was wrong. A school principal is supposed to express leadership skills, fairness, organization, and honesty. Right off the bat, Mrs. Robertson excluded her honest trait, breaking the trust bond between her and her students and staff. She breaks this bond by showing she has the right degrees to become a valid school principal, even when she does not. To her other competitors, she cheated by providing the false information to the employers. She is not being fair to her competitors. This provided an advantage for her to become the favoring choice over her more qualified opponents.

When the employers vetted for unlisted information, they found nothing suspicious. The kids however, did their own research and found her degrees were forged. The students, with their research, found that Corllins University, the school Mrs. Robertson received her degree from, was not real. I find it amazing how students can surpass the findings of adults, whose job it is to find details like this. Despite their significant findings, what if they were silenced due to their role of a student? The Supreme Court case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, similarly regards to a high school’s newspaper. The majority of this case stated: “We have nonetheless recognized that the First Amendment rights of students in the public schools ‘are not automatically [equal to] the rights of adults…” Mrs. Robertson was, even though for a short amount of time, the active principal of this school. She could have muted the students of this newspaper by not allowing them to publish it, like the principal in Hazelwood did. Mrs. Robertson had more verbal power over her students. If the principal were to silence her students, no one would be aware of her invalid credentials. The students’ findings would never go public. The whole school would be forced to be powered by an adult that does, one, not express the traits of a principal, and two, does not have the valid degrees to become a school principal. Fortunately, the students’ voice was not muted, and then in return forced the principal to resign from her prestigious position.

Andrew M.

It interests me as to how the Pittsburg school district had not found any negative information pertaining to the newly appointed principal, Amy Robertson, but somehow the students at the school did.

This story about a high school in Kansas, reminds me of a case I recently studied known as Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. Both cases had to do with students working as journalists or in a newspaper club in their school. Hazel v. Kuhlmeier was about students working for their school newspaper and writing about the topic of teen pregnancy. The student reporters changed the names of the students in their article so that names wouldn’t be revealed. The principal of this school was the person who had final say whether to allow or not allow the students’ articles to be published. The principal simply declined the teen pregnancy article because he was afraid of sexuality issues, birth control, and the names of the pregnant students could still – in some way – be revealed. In my opinion, the principal’s actions were completely justified. From the start he was the boss of this school club. So it was established, no matter what, he had ultimate control over it. But the students who wrote the article decided to sue the school for their first amendment rights involving censorship, claiming their principal was infringing upon their rights. The students ended up losing in court because the first amendment rights of students are not automatically equal to the first amendment rights of an adult.

Whereas in the Kansas case, Pittsburg High School was hiring a new principal. They had decided on a woman named Amy Roberson. A student reporting club called the Booster Redux found inconsistencies in their soon to be principal’s story. The school officials encouraged the journal club to dig in deep and find information about this. As a result of the students’ investigation, Amy Robertson ended up resigning from the role of being the leader of The Pittsburg High School. If Amy were to sue the school, she could not win because the principal encouraged the students club to find information on this woman.

When I compare the two stories, in both cases I applaud the students’ passion for their rights and for the information they worked so hard to find. Even though I do not agree with the students’ views in the Hazel case, I can understand and appreciate how hard they must have worked on their story and it’s great that they tried to stand up for what they believed in. In Kansas, the students actually made a difference in their school by preventing a principal from running their school. The effort given by these students shows what you can accomplish through hard work and determination.

Bayla G.

The Pittsburgh high school newspaper, The Booster Redux caught national attention when debunking their principal to be, Dr. Amy Robertson. While in conference with Dr. Robertson via phone her credentials didn’t quite add up. Robertson had a very prestigious PH.D. and Master’s degree both from Corllins University. The Booster Redux journalists researched Corllins University and found that according to Oregon Live and the website, The Oregonian Corllins university is a diploma mill, in other words Corllins sells false degrees. After the students involved with The Booster Redux conveyed their evidence to their school officials, the officials were astonished to see that their great selection of a new principal was not as accredited as she said she was. This exhibition of evidence lead to a swift and definite discontinuation of the supposedly “great fit” principal to be.

Given that this argument transitioned into a lawsuit on the Supreme Court, I think that a few Justices may explain that the Booster Redux’s freedom of speech as well as their freedom of the press would have been stripped from them due to their being in a public school environment. The Booster Redux’s article on their principal to be, Dr. Amy Robertson may be interpreted as defamation. Some of the more right winged Justices may make the argument that this edition of The Booster Redux lead to disruption, while it being positively connotated disruption it would still remain disruption in a public school environment. Disruption in public schools has been taken very seriously throughout the Supreme Court’s history, and had even resulted in the stripping of students constitutional rights. This was made very clear when student Frederick from the Frederick v. Morse case had an eye catching yet nonsensical sign that was interpreted as advocacy for the use of illegal drugs by the majority of the Supreme Court.

Andrew McG

I think that the students had the right to investigate on Robertson’s credentials, but there are people who argue against what the students did. They wanted to know if their potential principal was actually licensed to be able to become the principal of their school if she was hired. The potential principal, Amy Robertson, said, “The current status of Corllins University is not relevant because when I received my MA in 1994 and my PhD in 2010, there was no issue.”

It turned out that Corllins University wasn’t acutely a registered and approved place of education by the United Sates of America Department of Education, who had been contacted by the staff of the Kansas Star. They found many articles that proved that Corllins University is what’s called a “diploma mill”

“They were not out to get anyone to resign or to get anyone fired. They worked very hard to uncover the truth”, said Emily Smith, who is the Pittsburg journalism adviser. I agree with her statement that the students worked hard to find out information about their potential principal. I think that the school and the students needed to know about the person who could become their principal.

Cayla D.

Throughout many of the cases I have studied the majority ended in a ruling that made the student look powerless. until the case involving students researching a soon to be principal resigned. These students were able to take time to research this woman for a period of three weeks and it paid off and proved that students aren’t always inferior. Though many students’ rights are suppressed in schools, the freedom of the press isn’t one of them. I connected this
case to The Hazelwood case because both involved a school newspaper that contained articles about private information. The only difference is that in the Hazelwood case the authors of the article were sued for leaking that information. I would understand them getting in trouble because they weren’t helping like students in Pittsburg Kansas, who prevented a frames from running their school. Personally, I think she had no excuse to fight back against these kids because no matter what judge you put this case in front of its almost a guarantee that they side with the students. She had no option other than to resign after getting completely exposed by the students.

Trevor S.

When a person applies for a job with fake credentials, it makes you wonder if and how they expected to hide the truth for their whole career. I don’t know what Amy Robertson was thinking when she made the choice to apply, but I can guess that it was not rational. This is a relatively difficult topic to make a discussion over, because there was no argument, she was exposed, and accepted the result. If she had sued the school for publishing the newspaper with the details, that would be an interesting story.

Hypothetically, if she had sued over the newspaper, I would compare it to the Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260, (1988) where a school newspaper contained articles related to teen pregnancy, divorce, and the discussion of sexuality, and birth control. In this case (no pun intended) the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the school, who wanted to remove the pages containing those topics. However, in this situation, the articles were not considered offensive, so it would not look good for Doctor Amy Robertson.

Something interesting to talk about is whether or not this was a violation of Robertson’s privacy. Her information was open to the public, however, if the students had vetted her credentials and found everything was legitimate, what would have happened. In my opinion, these students have done nothing wrong, Dr. Robertson may disagree, but she did accept the penalty, and resigned. Once again, she shouldn’t have expected no one to look.

Rowan L.

The accumulation of evidence that presented Robertson’s lack of credentials that eventually led to her resignation, indisputably, was a noteworthy effort of investigative journalism by the students writing the paper. The argument is whether they had the legal standing to press the matter so intensively or not. The Supreme Court has dealt with cases that take a close examination at student rights. A similar case to this one arouse in 1988, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, in which both deal with instances of student journalism. A trio of students took this case to court after their principal had removed some articles they wrote involving sexuality and birth control. The majority ruled that by prohibiting the publication of a selection of controversial articles, principal Robert E. Reynolds was violating the First Amendment rights of the student writers. There should have been nothing stopping the students from performing their excellent feat of investigation. As according to previously established case law, nothing illegal was standing in their way of this process. If the principal wished to not be caught due to the lack of credentials for her job, she should’ve earned them in the first place.

Jake B.

If this was a case, I believe it would be Roberts suing the district for violating her Fourth amendment rights. Roberts’ argument would be on how the students invaded her privacy, and that kids have less rights then adults. The students’ arguments would be on how it was their First amendment right to ask her the questions, write about them, and research her more. If this case made it to the Supreme Court, I think the court would vote in favor of the school district. Even though the students might have invaded her privacy, she did lie about an important matter and the school district made her resign from the position. This situation reminded me of the New Jersey v T.L.O case when the female student sued the school for her Fourth amendment rights being violated. Both Mrs. Roberts and that student can argue that the schools conducted an unreasonable search and violated their privacy. In New Jersey v T.L.O. case , The Supreme Court voted in favor of the school and decided that the search was reasonable under the Fourth amendment. I infer the Roberts vs. Kansas School district case would go the same way. This situation also reminded me of the Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier case because it also relates to the school newspaper. In this case the students that wrote for the school newspaper, sued the principal for not letting some of their work get published. The court ruled for the principal. The majority opinion ruled “the First Amendment rights of students in the public schools are not automatically (equal to) the rights of adults and must be applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment.” However the dissenting opinion stated that the principal violated the students First Amendment because what they did doesn’t disrupt class work nor invade the rights of others. I think Roberts vs. Kansas School district case will follow this dissenting opinion since the students search doesn’t interfere with the education process. In my opinion, I think these students started their search with wanting to get to know their future principal better, and not expecting to find any “dirt” on her. When they found something suspicious they decided to dig deeper and see who this woman really is. I think they were just trying to protect their school, and didn’t do anything wrong. Finally the information the children found is public information so it was accessible for everyone.

Nicholle L.

 

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