To protest, or not?

Dustin Gehring, Tyler Conda, Seth Miller Brighton Pruss, Aria Ara, Steve La Rue, Jessica Staley, Kyle Gonzalas and Chris Ireland protest outside of the Oak Harbor district office Thursday.   - Liz Burlingame/Whidbey News-Times
Dustin Gehring, Tyler Conda, Seth Miller Brighton Pruss, Aria Ara, Steve La Rue, Jessica Staley, Kyle Gonzalas and Chris Ireland protest outside of the Oak Harbor district office Thursday.
— image credit: Liz Burlingame/Whidbey News-Times

A group of 20 students held protests signs to passing traffic at the intersection of Whidbey Avenue and Oak Harbor Street, under the bruise-colored clouds of Thursday afternoon. Their signs were scrawled with “Free Speech” and the sign on the building behind them read “Oak Harbor School District Office.”

“This office is the dead-center of the district. What better way to send a message,” student Dustin Gehring said.

Students assembled at this intersection for three days, and argued their free speech rights had been violated by Oak Harbor High School staff.

The previous Friday, five student protesters were arrested at the school for disrupting classes and interfering with school administration. The staff shut down a silent protest that occurred the same day.

Mike Zuercher, father of silent protesters Rachel and Billy Hardin, drafted a letter to the American Civil Liberties Union, describing the case. He wrote that the initial protest was to “bring back” a student who was expelled for suspicion of a marijuana crime. And he said some parents were “outraged by the school’s lack of tolerance to the democratic process.”

After reviewing the letter, the ACLU requested more details. A spokesperson for the organization said they are contacted by about 5,000 people a year, and not every case is investigated.

“They want me to send more information about the restrictions on free speech,” Zuercher said.

At Thursday’s protest, Gehring alleged that administrators threatened to expel students for wearing T-shirts and other clothing which protested their classmates’ expulsion. Their leaflets and flyers were taken away by Dean Linda Otruba, an act which Gehring described as an abuse of power.

“She took it too far in our view,” Gehring said. “And if no one stands up now, who will in the future?”

Later in the day, Principal Dwight Lundstrom returned the flyers to the students because he felt it was a protected activity, Superintendent Rick Schulte said.

While the discipline issue was protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act — a reason Lundstrom said third-parties shouldn’t be involved — there is no clear policy for protests. However, there are a few pertinent Supreme Court cases, Schulte said.

The 1960’s Tinker vs. Des Moines case dealt with students wearing black arm bands to protest the Vietnam War, but they were banned by the high school. The Supreme Court ruled they were protected by the free speech clause because the students were “quiet and passive.”

“If you look at the decision, they were allowed to wear arm bands because there was no disruption. That meant the school had complete authority to control any behavior that disrupted the environment,” Schulte said. “So while the Tinker case defended freedom of speech, it gave the district control over anything they deemed disorderly.”

In the more recent, “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” banner case, in which a student in Alaska unveiled the sign on a public sidewalk, free speech rights became even more limited.

The Supreme Court ruled the school district has authority to discipline students for advocating drug use at school.

Based on the cases, Schulte said administrators were acting within the rights outlined by the courts when dealing with the arrested students.

“The students were flagrantly disruptive, and secondly, it was viewed as defending drug use or drug users,” he said.

When addressing the silent protesters, Zuercher said the school overstepped their boundaries.

“The school called all of the kids into the office and gave them the choice of taking off the shirts or be suspended for the day with the justification that wearing the shirts was a disruption of the educational process,” Zuercher wrote in his letter to the ACLU. “If the kids stated that they would not, parents were called and told that their kids were interfering in a narcotic disciplinary action, and that the kids did not know all of the information and that the disciplinary action was none of the kids’ business, to gain parent support in making the kids take off their shirts.”

Zuercher is beginning a civil rights group with parents to support the students’ peaceful protests. He said he believes the district cares about this issue, but there is a difference of opinion.

“We’re not about getting back at the district, it’s about free speech and there needs to be a community decision,” he said.

People have an opportunity to learn from this, Schulte said, and the district takes the First Amendment very seriously.

“We have a high interest in protecting the First Amendment and we have a high interest in protecting education. I think there’s an opportunity for both to co-exist,” Schulte said. “I would hope that students might learn to exercise their rights and be respectful.”

The issue spawned a free speech debate on the Whidbey News-Times Web site under the story “Students demand free speech.”

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