The attorney for a Webb City High School junior who has brought a First Amendment lawsuit against school officials wants a little more information before he will go along with school officials' suggestions that things will be entirely different when the 2005-2006 school year begins.
In a letter dated June 3 and addressed to district lawyers Tom Mickes and Sarah Lawrence, Joplin attorney William Fleischaker asked for more information concerning a letter sent to him by Ms. Lawrence and one sent to Leda Myers, the mother of student LaStaysha Myers by R-7 Superintendent Ron Lankford.
In those letters, school officials indicated that LaStaysha Myers will be allowed to wear clothing with gay pride messages once the 2005-2006 school year starts. Ms. Myers was one of a dozen students who were sent home after refusing to change shirts with gay pride messages that they wore in support of fellow student Brad Mathewson. With the help of Fleischaker and the American Civil Liberties Union, she filed a First Amendment infringement lawsuit against Lankford, High School Principal Steven Gollhofer, and Assistant Principal Jeff Thornberry.
"We understand the Webb City R-7 School District to have acknowledged LaStaysha Myers' right to wear expressive t-shirts of her choosing, including those supporting gay rights," Fleischaker wrote. "We appreciate these assurances that LaStaysha will no longer be subject to discipline if she wears her t-shirts. However, because the district has taken the position in this litigation that it is entitled to censor student expression if it believes that it can forecast some theoretical future possibility of disruption by others, and as district previously has defined 'disruption' so broadly as to far exceed the scope of its rights to censor student expression, we write in an effort to clarify the district's current position."
Fleischaker's letter gives the impression that he and the Myers family are not quite ready to take Lankford's word about how the t-shirt situation will be handled. "First, Dr. Lankford's letter to Ms. Myers states that LaStaysha 'may wear any clothing she chooses as long as it is compliance with the Board of Education's policies.' Please describe the Board of Education policies to which Dr. Lankford is referring."
Fleischaker also asked for reassurance that Ms. Myers' constitutional rights will be protected. "Your letter dated May 31 states that because there was no further 'disruption' during the 2004-2005 school year, 'the restriction on Ms. Myers' t-shirts has been lifted for the upcoming school year.' Please clarify whether the lifting of this restriction includes a commitment that the district will protect LaStaysha's First Amendment right to wear t-shirts similar to those at issue in this litigation even if, for example, other students complain about the t-shirts. Such protection is necessary to comply with Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, in which the Supreme Court recognized that school officials may censor a student's right to expression only if they can 'show that their action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint."
In conclusion, Fleischaker said, "Please clarify whether the district agrees that school officials may censor student expression based on an anticipated material and substantial disruption only where there is evidence that the censorship is 'necessary to avoid material and substantial interference with schoolwork or discipline.'
"In other words," Fleischaker said, "the district may not censor a student's quiet, passive expression when there are alternative means to maintaining a proper school environment, such as disciplining any students who fail to focus on their classroom work or who disrupt the classroom environment."
Fleischaker said he until he receives a satisfactory response to his questions, "we are unable to determine whether the district's current position is consistent with our client's First Amendment rights."
Ms. Myers' lawyers have asked for an expedited schedule to have a brief trial before the 2005-2006 school year starts. District officials say a trial is no longer necessary because Ms. Myers will be allowed to wear her shirts.
The content of the letters to Ms. Myers' mother and her lawyers can be found on the May 27 Turner Report at http://rturner229.blogspot.com/2005/05/dr_27.html More information can be found in the April 25 Turner Report at http://rturner229.blogspot.com/2005/04/when-tempers-calm-webb-city-r-7-school.html and in other Turner Report editions dating back to the initial filing of a First Amendment lawsuit against the district by Brad Mathewson in November 2004.