A commenter made a good observation on my previous post about the case of the Wisconsin high school art student receiving a Zero and subsequent detentions for including in his landscape drawing a cross and the lettering “John 3:16.” The student, named as A.P. in a lawsuit against the school district, signed a policy the teacher presented at the beginning of the semester, which “prohibited any violence, blood, sexual connotations or religious beliefs in artwork.” Hmmm, placing religious beliefs alongside and seemingly on the level of violence, blood, and sexual connotations is interesting. Anyway, the comment was this:
Since when can a minor sign a legally binding contract without the consent of his legal parent/guardian?
Her question got me thinking. A minor can void a legal contract, true. The contract was not binding, but neither should it be meaningless. I don’t think it’s smart to be teaching kids that they can break contracts willy-nilly and be free of all responsibility. HOWEVER, this particular contract…oh boy.
This student should have carefully read the contract at the beginning of the class and raised a stink at that point – because on the face of the policy itself is a violation of student rights, as set forth in legal precedent (Tinker v. Des Moines Community School District (1969) which upheld the right of students to wear black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War).
Tinker held that the First Amendment did apply to public school students and teachers, and that regulation of student speech in the classroom would be allowed only if there was a constitutionally valid reason, like “substantial interference with school discipline or the rights of others.” A mere desire to avoid controversy is not a valid reason to suppress student expression.
Tinker has since been limited by other cases, with the scope of free speech not including indecent speech (Bethel School District v. Fraser) and with school newspapers being regulated (Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier). See also Perry Education Association v. Perry Local Educators Association and Morse v. Frederick.
Not only the Tinker case, but a document from the Department of Education, circulated in 2003 (Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools), makes it clear that students have a right to religious expression in the classroom. Here is the relevant portion from that D.O.E. document:
Religious Expression and Prayer in Class Assignments
Students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions. Such home and classroom work should be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the school. Thus, if a teacher’s assignment involves writing a poem, the work of a student who submits a poem in the form of a prayer (for example, a psalm) should be judged on the basis of academic standards (such as literary quality) and neither penalized nor rewarded on account of its religious content.
The fact that this “contract” the student in Wisconsin signed was ever conceived and drafted shows not only the ignorance, but the bias, of this teacher/school.
There is a lesson here for all students and parents of students in public schools: Know your rights. Because it’s obvious that attempts will be made to violate and undermine your rights, often out of honest ignorance of the law and confusion among school leaders about the religious liberties of students. That Dept. of Education document is a good one to print out and go over carefully with your child. The prevailing anti-religious climate and the extreme, sometimes absurd, secularization of public life doesn’t appear to be letting up, so be on top of the issues and use favorable laws to your advantage while we have them.
Vigorously protect religious expression – this is a unique American principle. The point of the First Amendment is to prevent a state-sponsored religion, not to squash religious expression in American public life. It is unjust and unconstitutional to mandate that public schools be religion-free zones.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof … — Religious-liberty clauses, First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution