Nationwide pro-life silent protest sparks censorship lawsuits

At least five lawsuits have emerged involving middle and high school students who participated in a nationwide silent protest of abortion and found themselves in a battle with administrators over their expression.

The Alliance Defense Fund, a religious advocacy organization that filed the lawsuits, said four preliminary injunctions have been granted and one case was settled. All attorneys are fighting the cases based on the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, where school officials cannot punish or prohibit student expression without evidence of material and substantial disruption of school activities or invasion of others’ rights.

The third annual nationwide Pro-Life Day of Silent Solidarity silent protest, sponsored by the Christian, pro-life organization Stand True, took place Oct. 24. Students were encouraged to wear anti-abortion clothing, pass out information and wear tape across their mouths, symbolizing the lost speech of unborn children.

A preliminary injunction was granted Jan. 31 for a Jefferson Middle School eighth-grader, identified as M.A.L., who was allegedly stopped from participating in the silent anti-abortion protest because his expression “was not “age-appropriate,’ it was “disruptive’ and that it was not suitable [for him] to express a pro-life message,” according to the complaint.

Other related cases involve Scott Fish of South Jefferson Clarke Senior High School and an unnamed student at Gowan Middle School, both of New York, and Andrew Raker of Millbrook High School in Virginia. All the students were granted preliminary injunctions, according to the ADF.

Attorney Frank Miller, the school’s lawyer in the Fish case, said the focus of the issue is the school’s effort to maintain order, which can be compared to any case of dress code violations.

“Our main concern is not the expression; our main concern is that there is order and discipline in the school,” Miller said. “We certainly recognize their freedom of expression. Our preference is that they don’t cause a disruption in the school.”

Alliance Defense Fund Legal Counsel Matt Bowman said such restrictions are “unreasonable.”

“[The cases] have claims to correct the violations of [their] rights and to provide permanent relief so that schools will no longer discriminate against Christian speech or restrict non-disruptive speech on civic issues,” Bowman said.

A lawsuit involving Sarah Hollen, a Penn Cambria High School student in Pennsylvania, was settled last month when the administration agreed to only prohibit “obscenity or content not protected by the First Amendment,” according Bowman. Hollen also was stopped from distributing leaflets and told to remove the tape from her mouth.

Alliance Defense Fund lawyers said these cases are important because they are upholding the standard set by Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.

“The impact is actually huge,” Alliance Defense Fund Attorney Delia van Loenen said. “[Administrators are trying to] take away that high standard. You can’t place regulation on student speech…otherwise you’ve obliterated that principle.”

By Erica Hudock, SPLC staff writer