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The Case of Tinker V Des Moines: Freedom of Speech at School

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The legal issue that is being discussed in this scenario is based on situation of Pauline Williams and the actions taken by Dyson Stevens, the cheerleading coach, and the principal of the school. In the situation, a high school cheerleader, Pauline Williams, is refusing to cheer for one of the students and players, Dyson Stevens, at a high school basketball game. Williams and Stevens previously had an altercation regarding potential sexual assault allegations, where legal action was attempted but all charges were dropped. During the game, Williams refused to cheer in support of Stevens, by turning her back and crossing her arms during Steven’s free throw shots. The actions taken by Williams seemed to be offensive to the head basketball coach, who asked the cheerleading coach to talk with her. Williams disclosed that she would not cheer for an individual who previously tried to rape her. 

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After being told that she must cheer for all players, Williams continued her actions of turning around when Stevens was awarded free throws again. This then brought the principal into the situation where again Williams was told that she must cheer for all players no matter the preceding circumstances, or disciplinary action would be taken and she would be kicked off the team. Williams reiterated that she would not cheer for Dyson Stevens, which then lead to the cheerleading coach cutting her from the team. This is where the discussion of legality comes into play in regarding the First Amendment rights of freedom of speech in different forms. If Pauline would have stopped her behaviors, and chosen to cheer for Dyson, she would still have her position on the cheerleading team, but consciously would know she is cheering for a person who tried to assault her. With all of this in mind, the legal issue in this situation is, does the school have the authority to remove players from school sanction activities because of the refusal to support another student based on potential misconduct?

There are two sides to this issue in this particular scenario. The first being Pauline Williams feels that she should not be forced into cheering for anyone, no matter the circumstances, who has or has attempted to sexually assault her. The second is the school officials; basketball coach, cheerleading coach, and principal, who believe that Williams needs to cheer for all players no matter the circumstances. To begin the analysis of this situation, we first must understand how we can apply the law to Pauline’s case to help protect her First Amendment. The First Amendment states that there shall be no law limiting speech of any kind, whether pure or symbolic, in any regard. In a similar case of Sissy Littlefield vs. Forney Independent, 2001, in regards to symbolic speech with uniforms, we can apply a similar analysis. 

The First Amendment protects categories such as this in “symbolic speech” through verbal and nonverbal expressions. “While behave rejected the view that an apparently limitless variety of conduct can be labeled speech whoever the person engaging in the conduct intends thereby to express an idea, we have acknowledged that conduct may be sufficiently imbued with elements of communication to fall within the scope of the First and Fourteenth Amendments”. (Sissy Littlefield v. Forney Independent, 2001) If we take this for what it is, then Pauline’s actions of turning around, and crossing her arms are protected. By doing this action she was trying to communicate to the people around her that she did not condone what had been done to her and she would not support cheering for Dyson’s success. That was up for interpretation by her peers. 

The First Amendment is applicable in this scenario to use as protected by the law. Pauline believes that she should be entitled to protection under the First Amendment, in reference to Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 1988 as “they cannot be punished merely for expressing their personal views on the school premises –whether in the cafeteria, or on the playing field, or on the campus during the authorized hours”. (Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 1988). What this means is that Pauline is entitled to express how she feels about Dyson in a peaceful and nonthreatening way, that will not “substantially interfere with the work of the school or impinge upon the rights of other students”. (Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 1988) The simple act of Pauline turning around and not supporting Dyson does not harm him in any way from continuing his tasks of playing basketball. The constitution does not allow the oppression of expression in any means that causes no harm to individuals involved.

Alternatively, educational institutions have rules and policies in place that are meant to maintain stability, which could be the reason that the adults in this situation acted the way they did. They believed that Pauline’s actions were not appropriate for the situation at hand and needed to be stopped. After her actions did not stop after the warnings, precaution were taken.

The three options that could arise form this scenario are listed below:

  1. Pauline William’s protection of First Amendment was violated and will prevail.
  2. Pauline William’s protection of First Amendment was not violated and will not prevail.
  3. Pauline William’s protection of First Amendment was not violated and she will keep her spot on the cheer team.

In the first option, Pauline’s believes that the actions set against her violated her First Amendment rights and she will prevail. In a similar case of John Tinker v. Des Moines Independent, 1969, school officials violated students First Amendment right of “pure speech” by impeding their ability for peaceful protest. The students were protesting in a non-aggressive way, not causing a disturbance. Pauline Williams’s was conducting a peaceful process by turning around not facing her potential rapist. Using precedent from this previous case, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 1988, it is said that, “students in the public schools do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate”. (Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 1988) In this scenario, Pauline let it be known to many authoritative people at the school of a possible sexual assault, which has possibly broken Dyson Steven’s privacy. The main consequences of this option will be a privacy breech in Dyson’s regard, with an investigation from the educational institution.

In the second option, the school was well within their rights to remove Pauline from the cheer team and did not violate her First Amendment rights. In this scenario, the school officials would have more of a convincing case in that, Pauline was acting out of line when she turned her back. As the charges were dropped and there was no criminal case that was currently being processed, she has no right to turn her back on the player. Using precedent from the case, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier 1988, “that educators do not offend the first amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns”. (Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 1988) This translates into Pauline’s situation because the coaches and principal were in fact working in the best interest of the school by stopping her actions at a school-sponsored event. In another case of John Tinker v. Des Moines Independent, 1969, the protestors conducted a silent, passive expression of opinion that did not interfere, actual or nascent, with the schools’ work or of collision with the rights of other students to be secure and to be left alone. In Pauline’s case, she did cause a disturbance when she protested, disrupting the players, coaches, and fans. When Pauline mentioned the allegations of the sexual assault this created another conflict as the accusation impinged on Dyson Stevens rights.

In the third option, there was no violation of Pauline’s First Amendments, but she will be able to keep her spot on the cheer team and not be kicked off. In this option, Pauline’s First Amendment rights would not have come into question based on precedent from Sissy Littlefield vs Forney Independent, 2001. In the analysis of this case, it was stated that, “Public schools, therefore while responsible for inculcating the values on First Amendment necessary for citizenship, are not themselves unbounded forums for practicing those freedoms”. (Sissy Littlefield vs Forney Independent, 2001) Meaning, that it is up to the school’s discretion to determine what actions fall within the rights of the First Amendment and what actions are not appropriate to be had on school property. This being said, Pauline should still be able to maintain her position of the cheerleading team if she so chooses as her simple protest is not enough to grant an immediate removal unless otherwise stated in a potential team contract that discusses disciplinary action within the team.

In the United States, the First Amendment was created to protect individual’s ability to express their thoughts and beliefs in a peaceful way, without being wrongfully silenced. This law continually validates itself using precedent, or facts in preceding cases to be used as a law for other similar cases currently or in the future. In the scenario of Pauline William’s, we were given three different cases with three different outcomes regarding potential violations of First Amendment rights, using them as guidelines for making our final decision. The first case of John Tinker v. Des Moines Independent, 1969, it was found that in fact the students who participated in a peaceful protest had their First Amendment rights violated by their educational institution. In this case, the students prevailed. The next case of Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier 1988, the educators won because the actions they took to sensor potentially sensitive and or offensive content in the school editorial did not violate the student’s First Amendment rights. Yes, freedom of speech is a protected right, but not when it could compromise the privacy of another individual without their consent. Finally, in the case Sissy Littlefield vs Forney Independent, 2001, it was found that in fact the students’ First Amendment rights were violated and can be protected under the category of “symbolic speech”.

Each case brought forward a valid point that could support both sides in Pauline’s scenario either in favor of a violation of the First Amendment or not. It is said that, “the protection of the First Amendment depends not only on whether the conduct is expressive, but also on the context in which that expression takes place”, meaning that the way in which people express their thoughts and feelings and the intent behind it, will help discover whether or not the First Amendment is protected. ”. (Sissy Littlefield vs Forney Independent, 2001)

Each individual that was involved in the scenario of Pauline William’s acted in a way that protected themselves and that they believed would better the whole. The basketball coach, the cheerleading coach, and the principal believed that the actions they took to stop Pauline, stood in the greater interest of the school and students. Although, Pauline believed that her actions were justified based on the preceding circumstances of the alleged sexual assault.

Based off all the information that has been collected from the preceding cases, I believe that Pauline Williams will prevail in that her First Amendment right or pure speech and symbolic speech have been violated by the actions that took place at the basketball game and should be able to regain her position on the cheerleading team. It will be up to Pauline to decide if she thinks it is worth being part of a team that mistreated her the way they did. On an end note, “in the public arena, the free expression rights of students are balanced by the corresponding interest of furthering the educational missions of schools”. (Sissy Littlefield v. Forney Independent, 2001) To conclude, Pauline Williams will prevail in protecting her First Amendment rights, and should have the option of regaining her previous spot on the cheerleading team.

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