MASSACHUSETTS — A so-called “First Amendment School” seems an unlikely defendant in a censorship lawsuit, but to Christopher Bowler, Hudson High School’s title seems undeserved.
Bowler filed a lawsuit against the school in May claiming his freedom of speech rights had been violated when the school banned his Conservative Club from promoting the Web site of its parent organization in November 2004. The site linked to videos of beheadings in Iraq, which Hudson Public Schools Superintendent Sheldon Berman said were “not appropriate even for adults,” let alone the eighth graders at the school. The videos of beheadings were meant to disprove persons who proclaim Islam a peaceful religion.
The school is a part of First Amendment Schools, a project sponsored by the First Amendment Center and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development “designed to transform how schools teach and practice the rights and responsibilities of citizenship that frame civic life in our democracy,” according to the project’s Web site. Hudson employs a governance structure among its students that is meant to reflect town meetings and increase student involvement in school operations.
The school’s Conservative Club, founded by Bowler, placed the Web address of the High School Conservative Clubs of America on its posters in order to display its affiliation with the organization. Bowler’s club never attempted to publish pictures of the beheadings or information about them.
In June, the U.S. District Court in Boston urged the two sides to attempt to settle the issue. The school recently addressed the court’s advisement by introducing a new policy that says student club posters in the school can only include basic information such as the time and place of a club meeting. Web site addresses are not among the items to be included on posters, but they can be included on fliers. The policy also bans the promotion of material that is “illegal, immoral, indecent, vulgar,” or disruptive.
Berman said the policy is part of the district’s compromise and that it is needed to prevent the school’s younger students from seeing offensive material, such as the beheadings.
“Free speech is also responsible speech and I think that free speech doesn’t mean you say anything to anybody at anytime and that’s clear in the school setting,” he said.
Gregory Hession, the attorney representing Bowler, said the policy “runs afoul of the free speech law in Massachusetts.”
The Massachusetts freedom of student expression legislation, Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 71, Sec. 82, states that “the right of students to freedom of expression in the public schools of the commonwealth shall not be abridged, provided that such right shall not cause any disruption or disorder within the school.”
In a letter to the editor of the Metro West Daily News published July 6, Bowler criticized the school’s new policy on student club posters.
“Since Conservative Club is the only club that has ever been affiliated with a Web site at [Hudson], this is a transparent attack on the club,” he wrote.
Hession does not consider the policy a compromise and said both sides continue to work towards a resolution.
“We’ve been speaking, all of us, in a civil fashion and we’re hopeful we can work something out to protect everybody’s interest here,” he said.
The situation will be resolved when the school becomes more tolerant of its students’ viewpoints, Hession explained.
“I would like to see the opportunity for people to have free speech no matter which side of the spectrum,” he said.
The lawsuit will not affect the school’s status as First Amendment School, Molly McCloskey, director of First Amendment Schools for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, said.
“It’s not an award program that says you’re doing everything right,” she said. “It’s a program to help schools deal with these kinds of issues.”
Student Press Law Center Executive Director Mark Goodman questioned the school’s decision in introducing the new policy.
“It is hard to believe that the school has banned every publication in their library that contains a Web address for a site that incidentally links to material that school officials might find objectionable,” Goodman said. “Given that, it would be very difficult for them to justify singling out this one student group or even all student organizations.”