ACLU cautions Iowa schools considering restrictions on students’ free speech

ATLANTIC — The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa has sent Atlantic’s school board a letter, saying it would be unconstitutional to prohibit student protests at school.

During the school board’s meeting in May, Leanne Pellett of Atlantic said she represented 30 residents who were upset by a March protest at the school over LGBTQ related bills in the legislature.

“This protest, promoted by a small group of students, and encouraged and promoted for sure by one and maybe more by our taxpayer funded educators is of great concern to us. Please understand, we do not object to anyone’s right to protest,” Pellett said. “…We do, however, object to these events taking place during educational instruction time, approved by school administration and promoted by educators.”

Pellet called on the school board to adopt a new policy.

“We would like to see a policy established by this board to allow events such as this protect to be held only before or after regular school instructional hours,” Pellett said, “and preferably not on school property.”

Thomas Story, a staff attorney with the ACLUof Iowa, said in an online news conference yesterday the policy Pellett suggested would clearly violate students’ constitutional rights.

“As of right now, we aren’t aware of any further action by the board on this policy,” he said, “but it’s important for us to use this as an opportunity to ensure all school districts in Iowa are aware of the constitutional problems with such a policy and their obligations to their students.”

Story cited a 1969 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that says students “do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” The case involved a group Des Moines students who were suspended from school for protesting the Vietnam War.

There were student walk-outs in several Iowa school district earlier this year, led by students protesting bills in the legislature. Story said it’s likely other school boards are hearing similar proposals to Pellett’s.

“It’s clear from the letter that we’re watching Atlantic,” Story said, “and if any schools do take the next step, we’d be willing to take a look at all of our options.”

According to the ACLU, Iowa law only lets schools limit or punish students for their speech or expression at school if it encourages illegal activities, interferes with other students’ rights, or substantially disrupts school activities.