Mass. school settles case over censored conservative posters

MASSACHUSETTS — A federal free-speech lawsuit between aformer Hudson High School student and the district settled almost three yearsafter administrators censored a conservative club’s posters, the RutherfordInstitute announced today. In the settlement, which was reached on the eve oftrial in March, officials agreed to amend school policy to forbid censorship ofstudent expression based on political viewpoints.

Christopher Bowler brought suit against Hudson in early 2005 afteradministrators forced him to take down posters advertising the first meeting ofthe Conservative Club, a new student organization he started. Bowler founded theclub during the fall of 2004 and chose to affiliate it with the High SchoolConservative Clubs of America. He used the HSCCA’s Web address,, on the posters.

A staff member later warned the administration that the Web site contained”several links to violent and brutal beheadings,” according to court documents.The Web site had four links to videos of jihadist beheadings of Americans and astill shot of one of the videos. The school immediately blocked access to theHSCCA Web site from the school network, and the club was forced to take down theposters in early December 2004. The students were allowed to re-hang the postersin January 2005 but asked to remove them again that month. The administrationlater allowed the club to hang up the posters with the Web address marked out.The students also were allowed to write “censored” over the address.

“It was the concern of school officials that the exposure of students tothose gruesome and graphic images would be harmful to students,” said JohnDavis, the school district’s attorney.

The school moved for summary judgment early in the case, arguing that the”graphic content of the videos could impinge on the rights of other students”and that the videos could materially and substantially disrupt the schoolenvironment, according to court documents.

Under the standard set in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent CommunitySchool District, a 1969 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, school officials cannotcensor student speech unless they can reasonably forecast that the speech willcause a substantial disruption to the school or invade the rights of others.

But Bowler and others in the club argued that the beheading videos were apretext used to censor the club’s controversial politics. Bowler said he heardteachers in the hallway talking about the club, saying it would spreadintolerance and hatred.

Assistant Principal David Champigny told Bowler that he supported the clubbut many teachers were uncomfortable and offended by the message the HSCCA wassending. Champigny then said the posters had to be taken down because of thebeheadings on the Web site.

U.S. District Court Judge Patti B. Saris ruled in October of 2007 thatHudson officials had not met the Tinker standard because the students didnot advertise the beheadings on the club’s posters; students who viewed thebeheadings would be doing so by their own choice.

“When students are exposed to speech only as a consequence of voluntarychoice, the speaker has not invaded the rights of others,” Saris wrote in herdecision allowing the case to continue.

It is inevitable that people will be exposed to shocking viewpoints that donot match up with their own, said John Whitehead, founder of the RutherfordInstitute, which represented Bowler.

“The whole purpose of First Amendment is to protect offensive speech,”Whitehead said. “I don’t agree with Bowler’s point of view, but, like Voltairesaid, we should fight to the death to defend the Bowlers of the world.”

Whitehead also noted that the school’s actions were ironic consideringHudson High School is one of 11 pilot schools in a First Amendment Schoolsprogram. This national program was created by the First Amendment Center as away to changehow schools teach and practice the rights andresponsibilities of citizenship, according to the Center’s Website.

The school district maintains that the case was never about politicalviewpoints but about the school’s right to make the students take the URL off the posters.

“The plaintiffs claimed that school officials did not have the right to askthem to take the Web site off of the posters,” Davis said. “When they agreed todismiss the case, we took that as an admission on their part that it was notwrong for the officials to require the students to remove the Web site.”

The school has already changed the language of its non-discriminationpolicies to explicitly forbid censorship based on political views.

“The school has always had several non-discrimination policies and theseincluded gender, race, ethnicity and religion, among other things,” Davis said.”The Hudson School Committee has tweaked the policies [in March] to includelanguage regarding political views.” Davis added that these revised policies arealready in effect in the district.

Bowler said he is happy with the settlement and views it as a victory forfreedom of speech and freedom of expression.

“I am glad that the administration has finally recognized that if thisschool is going to pride itself on a democratic environment that emphasizes freespeech, that includes all viewpoints,” he said.