We have many miles to go before America is a safe place for kids to talk about what’s on their minds. Fifteen thousand miles, to be exact.
That’s how much ground First Amendment warriors Mary Beth Tinker and Mike Hiestand are about to cover — spanning 19 states and the District of Columbia — in a 29-foot RV (“Gabby”), on a mission to elevate the discussion about the state of student rights in America’s schools.
The gap between the constitutional rights of young people and adults has never been wider, and the penalties for just being a kid have never been more frightening. One state, North Carolina, has even imposed jail time for doing nothing more than mocking a school official on a fake Twitter account.
Kids are doing amazing things with the power that technology puts in their hands. They’re influencing education policy and helping make social change even before they’re old enough to vote. But kids are also struggling under the yoke of the Supreme Court’s shortsighted Hazelwood decision, which has emboldened school administrators to intimidate and punish outstanding young people for doing nothing more than speaking their minds.
We need a “Johnny Appleseed of student rights” to awaken students to the legal protections they do have, and to their ability to seek reform where legal protections are deficient.
Fortunately, we have two.
In today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, longtime SPLC attorney Hiestand explains why he’s about to spend the next three months in a rolling sardine can, traveling from school to school with a First Amendment legend:
Today’s technology is powerful, and that power scares some in authority. Mary Beth changed her world by wearing a simple cloth armband, but thank goodness the tools available to students have improved. Because today’s problems will take more than armbands to solve. They will require super-tools and super-users, empowered and trained to use them effectively. Unfortunately, rather than embracing the potential of digital media and fostering an environment that encourages its constructive use, schools’ reaction more often is one of fear.