Tennessee principal bans off-campus peace group from high school visits

Veterans for Peace is an organization that prides itself on emphasizing peaceful solutions to conflict, said member and veteran Charlie Osburn.

Yet the group’s visit to Cookeville High School in Cookeville, Tenn., on Sept. 2 was not quietly received by parents of students who found their fliers offering military alternatives to be offensive, prompting Principal Wayne Shanks to ban the group’s materials from his school.

Veterans for Peace set up tables with their literature in the commons area during students’ lunchtime. Later that day, Veterans for Peace member Hector Black received a phone call from Shanks saying that his group would not be invited back.


Shanks said he banned the materials because they had not been pre-approved, and they could be viewed as “controversial” and possibly “political in nature.”

Parents objected to quotes in the fliers, including one by George C. Marshall that said, “Our enemies are not people. … They are desperation, poverty, and humiliation.” 

“If you’re going to open the school to non-student organizations, then it’s incumbent on you to allow everyone – with reasonable restrictions – to come in to the schools,” Veterans for Peace member Warren Duzak said. “We understand limitations ¬¬¬- obscenity and things like that – but if [we] meet those requirements then we’ve got every right to be in the school, just like everyone else.”

Veterans for Peace appealed the decision to the Putnam County School Board on Feb. 3, with a letter that the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee sent to the school board’s attorney on Veterans for Peace’s behalf.

According to Michael Martin, Putnam County School Board Director, the school board is reviewing the court cases and will base its decision on the ruling in a similar case in Atlanta, to be decided within the next few months.

SPLC View: Generally, courts have allowed schools to significantly limit campus access to non-student groups. The key, however, is that such limitations must be uniformly applied. Certainly, allowing military recruiters on campus while preventing or limiting outside groups that want to provide information to students about alternatives to military service raises questions about such policies. Also, school officials cannot bar a particular group simply because they disagree with that group’s message, which – given the principal’s comments in this case – certainly seems to be the case here.