A school official in Houston plans to suspend any student who walks out in protest over gun violence
The past week has seen a wave of gun reform protests following the deadly massacre at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14th. Students from Chicago, D.C., Pittsburgh, and Austin showed their support for gun law reform in spontaneous rallies, but a Houston school superintendent is promising suspension if his district’s students join the protests.
“Needville ISD will not allow a student demonstration during school hours for any type of protest or awareness,” Superintendent Curtis Rhodes of Needville, Texas wrote in a now-deleted post on the school’s Facebook page. “Life is all about choices and every choice has a consequence whether it be positive or negative. We will discipline no matter if it is one, fifty or five hundred students involved.”
Rhodes, who is a registered Republican. said that students would be punished with a three-day suspension, and that notes from parents would not excuse them from punishment. But Constitutional scholars like Heidi Li Feldman told the Washington Post that Rhodes’ threat is a violation of free speech.
“It’s a quintessential First Amendment violation, and most Americans have an instinct about that, Feldman said. “Content-based restrictions on speech are anathema to the First Amendment. So this looks like a total problem. Feldman also pointed out that the protests are off-campus which should ideally limit students from suspension.
This is not the first time Rhodes has been part of a legal dispute. In 2008, he forbid a Native American kindergarten student from wearing long hair. He lost in federal district and appeals courts, where the decision was ruled to be a violation of the child’s religious freedom.
Feldman also said that punishments for missing school must be handled uniformly. That means kids who miss class for some other reason outside the gun protests would also be subject to a three-day suspension for the policy to technically be “fair.”
For some historical context, free speech for students was defended by the Supreme Court in 1969 when a 13-year-old Des Moines student wore an armband protesting the Vietnam War. The Supreme Court decided that students and teachers do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
We admire these students for standing up for what they believe in, and we sincerely hope Rhodes’ decision is overturned by a higher authority.