Manifesto leads to suspension, lawsuit against school

NEW JERSEY — Distributing fliers got a Montclair High School student quickly grounded by his principal.Now he is suing.Husani Oakley has taken his principal and the Montclair Board of Education to court for suppressing his right to free speech and for other school policies that the lawsuit claims are overbroad and vague.Oakley distributed a flier in June 1996, that criticized the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). It was titled, “The Northern Jersey Socialist Liberation Organization Manifesto.”According to the complaint filed by Oakley’s attorney, Joseph A. Fortunato, Montclair High School principal Elaine P. Davis suspended Oakley for five days and revoked a community service award he won from the school.In his lawsuit, Oakley claims that the school disciplinary policy “unconstitutionally regulates free speech by placing prior restraints on speech.”A section in the Montclair High School student manual prohibits unapproved distribution of material that is “sensitive in nature.”Federal courts, however, have consistently said that students do have the right to distribute non-school-sponsored publications at school.The lawsuit also takes issue with the “Special Notice to Students” that Davis subsequently issued on Jan. 7, 1997.Besides prohibiting the sharing of unapproved fliers, the notice threatened suspension against students “gathered in groups to discuss or review these flyers [sic].”Fortunato called Montclair High School’s policies “too narrow” and “offensive to the constitutions, both state and federal.”Fortunato also said that he is seeking a settlement for his client that “would change the school policy to affirm that the school board would respect the First Amendment rights of students” and recognize Oakley’s rights.If a settlement cannot be reached, Fortunato said, the case will most likely go to trial this fall.