Teacher, Student Opinion Clash Results in First Amendment Flap

Last week, Judge Patrick Duggan of the US District Court in Detroit ruled that Howell High School teacher Johnson McDowell violated a student's First Amendment Rights by kicking the student out for expressing his views on homosexuality during an "anti-bullying day," Lisa Roose-Church reports in the Daily Press & Argus. McDowell was ordered to pay the student $1 in compensation.

The incident in question happened in 2010 when McDowell kicked Daniel Glowacki out of the classroom after Glowacki, who was then 16 years old, said that due to his religious beliefs he didn't approve of homosexuality. A follow-up investigation into the incident by the school district reprimanded McDowell, saying that by his actions he shut down students' freedom of expression simply for voicing views with which he himself disagreed.

"You disciplined them in anger under the guise of harassment and bullying because you opposed their religious belief and were offended by it," the reprimand noted, according to court documents.

The reprimand further opined that McDowell "modeled oppression and intolerance of student opinion. … This could be construed ad teacher-to-student bullying; ironic of the Anti-Bullying Day intent."

For his actions, McDowell was suspended without pay for a day and ordered to take a course on the First Amendment. Later, the district softened the reprimand substantially, with the second version merely upbraiding McDowell for his unprofessional conduct. According to the district, the teacher is fighting his suspension.

Although the judge found for the family against McDowell, their claims against the school district were dismissed with prejudice, which means they will be unable to refile a suit.

 In making that decision, Duggan ruled that "at most the school district negligently adopted a policy that posed a risk to the First Amendment rights of its students and negligently failed to provide training on the intersection of anti-bullying policies and the First Amendment."

However, the judge said, it could not be said that the district acted with "deliberate indifference" to the constitutional rights of its students in adopting the rule or neglecting to provide the training.

In recent years there have been a number of instances of schools and school districts trampling on students' freedom of expression, though most involve social media rather than the classroom. Among such moves is the recent adoption of a new law in North Carolina that makes student Tweets that are deemed to be intimidating to a teacher a crime punishable by as much as $1,000 per incident.

06 24, 2013
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