Shawnee Mission schools ‘doubling down’ as free speech lawsuit escalates

Last spring, Shawnee Mission School District leaders answered students who claimed their freedom of speech was violated by promising to investigate ways to improve.

Now, into the start of another school year, the dispute has instead escalated into a tit-for-tat court battle involving the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU sued the district in federal court on behalf of three students and parents. Last month the district responded with a motion for the court to dismiss the lawsuit. Now the ACLU has responded with a 33-page document asking the court to allow the case to continue forward. The suit accuses the district of “totalitarian-style censorship tactics” to suppress students’ political speech on campus “merely to avoid controversy or discomfort.”

In a statement Wednesday, Lauren Bonds, ACLU’s legal director said, “Instead of simply acknowledging their violation of student First Amendment rights, the district appears to be doubling down on the mistakes they’ve made.”

She said the ACLU “wouldn’t have even filed the lawsuit had the district simply acknowledged what they’d done wrong and changed its policy.”

In an email to The Star, school officials responded: “The Shawnee Mission School District strongly supports the rights of all students to self-expression, as outlined in the First Amendment. The district will continue to work with staff to ensure that those rights are respected and protected.”

The dispute began April 20 when students at Hocker Grove Middle School and Shawnee Mission North High School claimed school officials muffled their First Amendment rights during a National Student Walkout Day held to protest gun violence and support increased school safety. The walkout coincided with a nationwide remembrance on the 19th anniversary of the mass shooting at Columbine High School, which was the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history — until 17 people were killed in Parkland, Fla., in February.

Shawnee Mission students said school officials stopped their district-approved, student-led rally, limited student speech and snatched cameras away from student journalists taking photos. Some students said they also were told they would face disciplinary action for participating in the protest and talking about gun violence.

Days later, after students complained, former interim Superintendent Kenneth Southwick promised in a public meeting that he would take personal responsibility for anything done to try to censor students.

Students asked district officials to admit they had violated free speech rights, apologize and provide First Amendment training to all teachers, staff and administrators.

In May, Southwick said the district would investigate the complaints and would likely host a training session in the fall for all school administrators on students’ free speech rights.

When the investigation moved slowly, the ACLU of Kansas sued the district and Southwick on May 31.

“It has been clearly established for nearly fifty years that school officials cannot ban students from engaging in political speech on campus absent a credible threat of material or substantial disruption,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit says that days before the student protest, district leaders directed “building administrators to ban students from discussing guns, gun control, and school shootings — the very subjects that student organizers intended to discuss,” but they failed to train school leaders on how to carry out the action.

The ACLU, in an early letter to the district and in the lawsuit, cited a 1969 court ruling saying that public school students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

The district argued that school leaders were justified because of concern that others might have wrongly assumed the students’ voices reflected the position of the district.

It said in court documents that student expression can be suppressed if school officials “reasonably conclude that it will materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school,” even if the disruption never materializes. And it argued that “school officials may act to prevent problems as long as the situation might reasonably lead authorities to forecast substantial disruption or interference with the rights of others.”

It also argued that Southwick can’t be held personally liable for district customs or policy.

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