NEW HAMPSHIRE– A district court ruled last week that high school administratorsdid not violate a student’s First Amendment rights when they suspended himfor wearing a ”No Nazis” patch.
Paul Hendrickson, asenior at Kingswood Regional High School in Wolfeboro, first wore the patch toschool in March 2005. The patch featured a swastika with a line drawn throughit.
”This kid’s speech was purely politicalspeech,” said Stephen Borofsky, Hendrickson’s attorney. ”Itsaid, ‘I do not like what Nazis stand for.’ For them to censor himand say, ‘No you can’t do that,’ is wrong.”
John Robertson, Governor Wentworth School DistrictSuperintendent, said Hendrickson’s suspension came after months of tensionbetween two groups of students at Kingswood.
The two groups weregenerally known as the ”gay students,” of which Hendrickson is amember, and the ”homophobes” or ”rednecks,” according tothe court decision.
The rival groups spent the 2004-05 school yeartaunting each other and making threats. There was also an indication thatmembers of the ”redneck” group were interested in Adolph Hitler andoccasionally greeted the ”gay students” with renditions of the Nazisalute, ”Seig Heil,” according to the decision.
Hendrickson told the NewHampshire Union Leader, a newspaper in Manchester, that when he wore thepatch that spring, it had been months since there was trouble between thegroups.
Robertson said Hendrickson’s wearing of the patch”ignited it all over again.”
Fearing escalated hostilityor even school violence, administrators asked Hendrickson several times toremove the patch. When he refused and invoked his First Amendment rights to wear the patch, he was suspended, according to the decision.
”Theemotions were stressed to the point of breaking,” Robertson said of thetension between the groups, although he said there was never any physicalviolence.
Robertson said he was pleased with the court’sdecision, and that he was happy to ”bring the matter to resolution.”
”Our first duty is to the safety of youngsters,” hesaid. ”We are all advocates of First Amendment rights. Part of theschool’s duty is to teach that, but not stifle it.”
Hesaid suspending Hendrickson did not stifle his First Amendment rights; it was a ”safety issue.”
Borofsky, Hendrickson’s attorney, said he disagreed with Robertson’s claims.
”Just becausethere’s tension in the school, that doesn’t mean you do away withthe First Amendment,” he said. ”The First Amendment has to live withthe tension, and it’s the administration’s responsibility to seethat it does.”
Hendrickson was also sent home in May when hereturned to school wearing a patch that said, ”Censored for Now.”Eventually, administrators allowed him to wear the substitutepatch.
The decision said Hendrickson’s explanation of the meaning of the patch — that it was a symbol of tolerance — was ”not-so-plausible.”
”The patch essentially said tothe redneck group, albeit symbolically, ‘You are Nazis and I am opposed toyour being in this school,”’ the decision said.
Thecourt based its decision on Tinker v. DesMoines Independent Community School District, the landmark 1969 SupremeCourt case that recognized the First Amendment protections of high schoolstudents.
Under Tinker, student expression is constitutionally protected unless it will result in an invasion of other students’ rights or will materially disrupt normalschool activities.
The decision said Kingswood administrators werereasonable in their fears that allowing Hendrickson to wear the patch wouldlikely have caused a ”substantial interference” with schoolactivities.
Additionally, the decision said that because high schooladministrators deal with students under the age of 18, ”teachers andadministrators are obligated not only to educate, but also to protect publicschool students from harm.”
”Public schools are nottraditional public forums, like the town square or public sidewalk,” thedecision said.
Borofsky said he was surprised by the decision, andsaid that while First Amendment protection for free expression in high schoolsis ”not as sweeping as it is on the street corner,” it is stillsubstantial.
He said Hendrickson’s case bears a similarity toa 2002 case heard by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In that case,
Sypniewski v. Warren Hills Regional Board ofEducation, a split court ruled that school officials at a New Jersey highschool probably violated the First Amendment rights of a student when theysuspended him for wearing t-shirts with ”redneck” slogans andConfederate flags.
The Sypniewski case, Borfosky said,effectively explored the connection between school censorship of student speechand the likelihood of ”substantial disruption.”
Borofskysaid the Hendrickson family reviewed the ruling over the weekend and has not yetdecided whether to appeal the decision to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court ofAppeals.
”I’m hoping they’ll say yes,” he said.