A pro-life club may decide to sue a high school north of Indianapolis because it allegedly censored a poster the club produced, which officials may feel is insensitive to other students who support abortion, the right confirmed for all American women by the landmark Supreme Court decision in Roe v Wade, the Indianapolis Star reports.
Nothing stimulates debate between free-speech advocates and free-religion advocates like a poster condemning abortion. Students in the Teens for Life club at Carmel High School spent several hours painting a poster that featured 300 hearts and the message, “3,000 Lives Are Ended Each Day,” with each painted heart representing 10 lives. The poster also advises pregnant women, high school students being the intended audience, to replace “abortion” with “adoption” as a strategy for dealing with teen pregnancy.
According to Liberty Counsel, a pro-life advocacy group based in Florida, school officials asked the Teens for Life students to take down the poster, because those officials felt it violated a few provisions for the posting of notices and bills by students. Specifically, they said it had not been pre-approved and may “interfere with what folks are thinking or feeling comfortable with.”
But asking students to take down a poster because it expresses a specific viewpoint about a matter that’s important to students, if that poster would otherwise be allowed, comes down to possible viewpoint discrimination on the part of the school.
“Schools may not censor pro-life viewpoints,” the Star quoted Mat Staver, Liberty Counsel’s founder, as saying in a statement. “The actions of the school officials are outrageous. … We will hold this school and these officials accountable.”
John L Hill, a professor with expertise in legal theory and ethics at the Indiana University School of Law in Indianapolis, told the paper that the Supreme Court has ruled against public schools in similar viewpoint discrimination matters. “The worst kind of discrimination under the First Amendment is viewpoint discrimination,” he was quoted as saying.
“Viewpoint discrimination” is the term the Court has used to identify government laws, rules, or decisions, such as those at Carmel High School, that tend to favor or disfavor one or more opinions on a particular controversy. For example, a school that allows “pro-choice” posters to be displayed by students in the poster area but bans “pro-life” posters because of their views would be engaged in “viewpoint discrimination.”
Public schools, as agents of the government, have to remain neutral with regard to what they prohibit and allow. Even if no pro-life club wants to display a poster, the school can’t ban it simply because it expresses a certain opinion or viewpoint on this important controversy. However, public schools are definitely within their rights to restrict student speech if they believe it’s disruptive to the learning process or the school environment.
Carmel Clay Schools Superintendent Nicholas Wahl issued this statement last week: “Carmel Clay Schools supports the rights of its students to express their opinions and our school clubs are one opportunity for students to do so, as long as they operate within reasonable guidelines. We give serious consideration to any claim that a student’s rights have been violated.” School officials promised to review the matter to determine what happened and what might be an appropriate course of action.
Because the school has allowed the posting of student speech in support of gay and lesbian students, Liberty Counsel says it will sue the school if the Carmel Teens for Life posters are prohibited or the speech of those students is censored based on viewpoint. If that’s Liberty Counsel’s only argument, though, they’re going to lose.
“Viewpoint discrimination,” which is illegal, usually refers to restricting speech on one side and not the other of a particular controversy. Gay rights are simply another controversy, not an alternative viewpoint, so the group would have to show discrimination against student views on abortion rights in order to prevail in court.