Kansas students express concern over profanity tickets issued by school police

KANSAS — Students in one Kansas school district can face a ticket and a $50 fine for foul language at school, a reach of police authority that is being questioned by students and free speech advocates.

Jordan Watkins first reported on the citations in the December issue of Play, the student newsmagazine at Maize High School. The tickets are issued by commissioned police officers at the school, the newsmagazine reported.

Profanity tickets are given to students whose language causes a “substantial disruption at school,” Lori O’Toole Buselt, director of communications for the Maize Unified School District 266, wrote in an email. In the fall semester, four students received such a citation, she wrote.

Watkins started his reporting because of frustration among students. Many “angry people” came to the newsmagazine asking what was going on with the tickets, so he decided to find out.

Tyler Bowen, a senior at Maize High School, hasn’t received a ticket, but said he would fight one if cited. He contacted the local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union about his concerns after hearing of the program.

Bowen said he was particularly concerned by one quote in the Play article. Watkins interviewed a police officer about the legality of the tickets, and the officer told him, “Whether they think they have the constitutional right of free speech, they also have the responsibility to be moral in public.”

“Who is this one person to decide what is moral in public and what is not?” Bowen said.

He said he understands profanity is against school rules and cursing would come with school consequences, but said giving someone a legal ticket seems “a bit excessive.”

It is unclear whether the tickets are legal citations or a form of school discipline. They are issued by fully commissioned Kansas police officers. Watkins said Superintendent Doug Powers called the citations an “administrative ticket.” O’Toole Buselt called them “campus citations.” It’s also unclear what the consequences of failing to pay the $50 would be.

Powers’ office referred questions to O’Toole Buselt, who wrote in her email that the officers “uphold and enforce statute,” but did not clarify which statute they are upholding. Maize district police could not be reached for comment despite repeated phone calls, and Buselt said she could not “accommodate” an interview with the police department’s director.

Watkins said the police officers he interviewed say the violations fall under the violent, obscene language category of the disturbing the peace law, but there is no such category in Kansas.

Doug Bonney, legal director for the ACLU Foundation of Kansas, said that such an ordinance would be unconstitutional. Profanity is protected speech and cannot be criminalized, Bonney said.

In its 1986 ruling in Bethel School District v. Fraser, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a school district’s decision to discipline a high school student for giving a lewd speech at a school assembly. Bonney said this allows school administrators to discipline students for sexually suggestive and lewd language.

“If they try to point to any county ordinance or city ordinance or for that matter, state statute that outlaws profanity that would give them the right to ticket somebody, that’s an unconstitutional ordinance,” Bonney said.

According to Kansas Statute, campus police officers are to enforce state law, county resolutions and city ordinances as well as the rules, policies and regulation of the school board, whether or not violations of these are a crime.

“Certainly, if they’re fully commissioned officers, I think this gives them — however misguided this policy is — it gives them the authority to enforce board and school board policies,” Bonney said, although he also said that even with the ability to enforce school rules, issuing legal tickets falls outside their authority.

Bowen said he believes the tickets are a “blatant violation of the First Amendment.”

“You can’t sit there and hinder somebody’s speech because then people are going to get used to that,” Bowen said. “They’re going to get used to not having these rights and then they’re going to think it’s weird that some people for these rights.”

By Lydia Coutré, SPLC staff writer. Contact Coutré by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 126.