Dear Dr. Gibson:
The ACLU of Illinois was dismayed to learn of apparent discrimination at Hononegah High School during a March 14, 2018 walkout against students who hold pro-gun views. We urge you to take prompt action to ensure that similar discrimination does not occur in the future and in particular during the planned April 20 walkout.
As advocates for student free speech, the ACLU of Illinois has encouraged public schools to respond to the recent student walkouts as occasions for discussion and education, rather than discipline. Such responses must be evenhanded, however. Under the First Amendment, opportunities for student speech must be extended on an equal basis to students on all sides of an issue.
Based on my conversations with Madison Oster and her father, the school did not afford equal treatment to Madison and other students who wanted to express a pro-gun viewpoint during the March 14 walkout. Instead, school officials isolated them from other student demonstrators and were dismissive of their requests for equal treatment.
My understanding of these events is as follows:
Prior to March 14, Madison's father notified the school Superintendent that Madison planned to carry a sign expressing her pro-gun views during the walkout. The school attendance office verified with staff that the signs would be permitted and allowed Mr. Oster and Madison to store them there in the attendance office that morning before the walkout. Mr. Oster was given no reason to suspect that Madison might not be allowed to participate in the walkout on an equal basis with other students.
On March 14 at 10:00 p.m., approximately fifty to seventy-five students filed out of the school building under the direction of school personnel. Madison and about five other pro-gun students were made to wait until all of their classmates had exited. The other students gathered about halfway down the football field, facing the end-zone bleachers. Some of them, dressed in red, staged a “die-in” by lying on the ground. Assistant Principal Chad Dougherty would not allow the pro-gun students onto the field, requiring them to stand with their signs near the door, behind the fence.
When Madison asked Mr. Dougherty why her group was not allowed on the field, he suggested that they would make trouble and that he did not want a “riot.” When she persisted, he eventually relented, ushering them through the gate with a sarcastic bow. Still, the small group was required to remain just inside the fence, out of sight or hearing of their peers down the field or other observers. Madison continued to ask why her group could not join the others. Eventually, Mr. Flohr approached and told the students, “You are the only ones who feel that way,” in apparent reference to their pro-gun views. He then turned his back on them and refused any further discussion.
At the end of the walkout, Mr. Daugherty subjected Madison’s group to the taunts of their classmates by holding them aside while all of the other students walked past them into the building. One student yelled at Madison to kill herself. Another student took pictures of Madison’s group, one of which became an online meme, Madison’s friends later reported. Finally, before allowing them to return to class, Mr. Dougherty warned the small pro-gun group not to bully the students with different views.
Madison returned home early, feeling bullied and disrespected, and firmly convinced that her school does not value her or other students who share her beliefs. The other students in her group feel too intimidated to express their views again during the April 20 walkout.
Based on this account, the school’s treatment of Madison raises serious constitutional concerns. You are no doubt aware that fifty years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protects the speech of public school students. As the Court explained, “the prohibition of expression of one particular opinion, at least without evidence that it is necessary to avoid material and substantial interference with schoolwork or discipline, is not constitutionally permissible.” Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 511 (1969).
In this instance, there was no apparent reason to believe that substantial disruption would occur if pro-gun students were given an equal opportunity for expression during the walkout. The students’ stated intention was to stand quietly with their signs and present a different view on the subject of gun regulation. There was no reason to believe that they would deviate from that intention.
Even if administrators believed that it was necessary to maintain some distance between groups with opposing views, they appear to have gone much further than that in this instance. Based on the above account, the distance between the two groups – the length of half a football field – effectively removed the pro-gun students from the demonstration altogether, and
prevented them from communicating their views to anyone but each other. Moreover, by twice requiring the pro-gun group to stand by while the other demonstrators walked past, the administrators – regardless of their intentions – signaled that the small group of students was disfavored and their views unworthy of respect. This impression was reinforced when administrators showed no reaction to students’ taunting of Madison and those who shared her opinions.
As detailed in our March 2 Open Letter to Illinois Schools, the ACLU of Illinois believes that the current moment provides schools with a rare opportunity for real-life civics education. To be effective, however, the lesson must include respect for those who hold different views.
Accordingly, please develop plans for the April 20 walkout that provide a meaningful opportunity for the expression of all points of view. In the longer term, please ensure that school policies and practices permit student speech without regard to viewpoint, as the Constitution requires.
Thank you for your attention to this matter.
Rebecca K. Glenberg
Senior Staff Attorney