Assistant Principal Deb Beals, Austin Hunt, Bible, Christian beliefs, David Hepinstall, David Stout, First Amendment, free speech, in loco parentis, Plainwell High School, Principal Jeremy Wright, Supreme Court, Tinker v. DesMoines
This one, gentle readers, is amazing, but sadly not surprising. Let’s review student’s free speech rights at school, from 2019’s Arizona: No MAGA Speech In Schools:
The seminal school free speech case was Tinker v. Des Moines (1969). In it, the Supreme Court noted that students do not abandon their rights ‘at the schoolhouse gate.’ Justice Abe Fortas, speaking for the majority, wrote:
‘In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students… are possessed of fundamental rights, which the State must respect, just as they themselves must respect their obligations to the State. In our system, students may not be regarded as closed-circuit recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate. They may not be confined to the expression of those sentiments that are officially approved. In the absence of a specific showing of constitutionally valid reasons to regulate their speech, students are entitled to freedom of expression of their views’.
Schools also act in loco parentis—in place of the parent. Some student speech may be prohibited, such as obscenities, fighting words—which encompass threats, racial slurs, or any other words, which might reasonably cause violence—or other utterances that pose an actual, rather than possible, disruption to school. School authorities can require kids to behave, in action and speech, in polite and appropriate ways because of the necessity of maintaining a safe and disciplined environment for learning, but always, those requirements, and any discipline resulting from refusing to obey them, must be reasonable and limited to achieving those ends.
Add woke to the equation, and sanity goes out the window, as Behind The Black.com reports:
They’re coming for you next: The faculty at Plainwell High School in Michigan suspended student David Stout for three days because he dared to express his Christian religious beliefs in private texts to his friends.
Some of the things he discussed were the love God has for sinners, Stout’s love for his friends, and, here is where the ‘problems’ began, Stout said he believed homosexuality is a sin and….drum roll…there are only two genders!
Before Stout was suspended, he claims he was asked by a faculty member [band leader Austin Hunt] why he didn’t turn himself in for his private discussions involving religion and ‘inappropriate’ jokes shared amongst friends, (Stout allegedly chuckled at homophobic/racial jokes his friends made during band camp in July 2021).
Stout claims he was informed that speaking about religion on campus was verboten because he might hurt someone’s feelings, and that students who overhear his opinions (on text message???) might feel ‘unsafe.’
Stout’s family filed suit against the School District, school principal Jeremy Wright, Assistant Principal Deb Beals, and Band Directors David Hepinstall and Austin Hunt.
This case arises because Plaintiff, a minor, and student at Plainwell High School, was wrongly subjected to a three-day suspension for the following:
1.expressing his sincerely held Christian beliefs and opinions in a private conversation with another like-minded student on school property;
2.laughing, allegedly, at inappropriate racial and homophobic “jokes” as told by two other band members during the school’s summer band camp on school grounds and not immediately stopping them from telling inappropriate “jokes;”
3.sharing his Christian beliefs about heterosexual/homosexual conduct in a series of private text messages, with another child, which did not occur on the school grounds or campus, with school property, at a school sponsored event or field trip, nor was it connected to any functions of the school in any way; and
D. failing to self-report to Defendants conduct and speech that Plaintiff did not believe were wrong.
4.Defendants acted outside the scope of their authority and violated Plaintiff’s well established First Amendment rights by suspending him for three days, preventing him from attending class or participating or practicing in any after school activities, and filing in his school record a disciplinary action.
Such a suspension by Defendants is a recognized constitutional injury.
Plaintiff’s private text/chat messages and conversations voicing his personal and religious opinions on homosexual conduct were rooted in historic religious doctrine.
Defendants had no authority to discipline Plaintiff for his speech in this case.
By all means, gentle readers, take the link and read the entire complaint. I’ll include only this additional section:
Defendant Hunt stated that Plaintiff must stop all further conversations regarding his religious beliefs with other students because if any student overheard them, they might feel offended and unsafe.
67.Defendant Hunt also told Plaintiff that students were no longer allowed to talk about their religious or political beliefs anywhere on campus at any time, because it may result in students who overhear such conversations feeling unsafe or having hurt feelings.
68.Further, Defendant Hunt stated that Plaintiff, as a band section leader, is responsible for what other band section members say and do. Defendant Hunt stated that even though Plaintiff told those other students to stop, Plaintiff had not preemptively prevented his section members from saying things that were considered offensive, thus, somehow making Plaintiff responsible for what these other students had said.
69.Essentially, Plaintiff was the scapegoat for the entire band section simply because he was the section leader and did not preemptively prevent other students from saying inappropriate things.
70.Defendant Hunt further instructed Plaintiff not to share his Christian faith with students inside or outside of band.
The allegations relating to the Principal and Assistant Principal are, if anything, even more outrageous. There is, by the way, no such thing as a right never to be offended, or to “feel unsafe.” We do kids no favors by telling them they must be perpetually aggrieved, and if exposed to the slightest upset, are “unsafe.” To be absolutely fair, it appears Hunt was sincerely trying to relate to David, but his admonitions clearly violated David’s free speech rights and exceeded his authority.
From all indications, David is an outstanding student athlete and musician, and apparently has no prior record of disciplinary infractions. What makes this case—I’ve not been able to find any resolution—so surprising is the free speech issues involved are not at all obscure. The law on student expression has been crystal clear since Tinker in 1969, yet school officials continue to blatantly violate the law. This trend has accelerated as schools have become increasingly woke, as in this case, David was, even though his conversations were private and, if one takes the assertions in the lawsuit as accurate, and I believe we can, not on school grounds or on school time (with one possible exception).
Christians often mistakenly assert the Supreme Court has removed religion from the schools. As a matter of law, they have not, but cases like this certainly tend to reinforce that view.
I always explained to my students that discussions of religion were absolutely necessary in dealing with much of the literature of the past, and some of the present, not only for historical, but cultural context, and also to understand the motivations of some characters. I also explained it was not illegal or improper to have such discussions. However, teachers are not allowed to prosletyze. I also explained students were allowed to speak about religion, and to possess and read the Bible and other books about faith, as long as they spoke and read in non-disruptive ways. Kids weren’t allowed, in the middle of class, to leap up and yell: “Oh God, smite this evil English teacher!” Nor were they allowed to read the Bible–or anything else–when they were to be reading a class assignment or otherwise paying attention in class.
What kids do on their own time is their business and the business of their parents, not any school. There are, of course, exceptions, such as a student using social media to threaten violence against the school, or commit any other crime directly implicating the school, but schools don’t own students, though in some parts of the country, they believe they do, and want to trick people into thinking they do.
But what about the “inappropriate jokes” told by others on school grounds at a summer band camp? What about them? Teenagers telling inappropriate jokes? Who ever heard of such a thing! Note that the school’s argument is not that David engaged in joke telling, merely that he laughed and did not report himself and others. The lawsuit asserts he did, in fact, stop those telling the jokes.
This too falls under Tinker and the First Amendment. There is no apparent assertion by the school that these jokes in any way disrupted a school activity, therefore, they’re constitutionally protected speech. One cannot be expected to “self report” constitutionally protected speech, nor may one be punished for failure to report. This self-reporting requirement is an abdication of authority by school officials. Students cannot be expected to exercise supervisory or disciplinary authority over other students. The short-sightedness and potential hazards of that should be obvious to any adult.
It is situations like this that are, more and more often, damaging public trust in our schools, and they should. When school officials forget they serve the public, and instead, become the woke police, what other conclusion can parents draw?
I suspect David will win his case, and I hope the court will impose not sanctions not only on the school district, but on those personally involved. It’s the only way to ensure this kind of overreach will not continue, at least in that school district.
I’ll continue to follow this case and write again when I have anything new to report.