Won: The school capitulated under national scrutiny.

A rising senior, J.P. Krause’s classmates in Advanced Placement U.S. History encouraged him to give an impromptu speech in support of his candidacy for Senior Class President. With his teacher’s approval, he delivered some lighthearted remarks in the classroom presenting an obviously fictional, comedic contrast between himself and his opponent. For instance, he suggested he was the candidate of liberty and he supported building a President Trump-like wall between Vero Beach High School and its archrival high school (and making the other school pay for it); while his opponent favored that rival school, and supported higher taxes to boot. J.P. won the election, but lost his First Amendment rights. School officials summarily disqualified him and gave him detention on the grounds that his speech “humiliated” another candidate and therefore violated the school’s anti-harassment policy. The school noted the punishment on his record.

On J.P.’s behalf, PLF wrote to school officials calling on them to withdraw their unjustified punishment and reinstate him as senior class president, because their actions violated the First Amendment. The anti-harassment policy prohibited all “verbal conduct” that someone might perceive as offensive, with no threshold requirement of pervasiveness or severity, or that the speech posed a realistic threat of substantial disruption. This broad policy could not withstand First Amendment scrutiny.

Two weeks later, after J.P’s story generated national media attention focused on the outlandishness of the school’s conduct, the school district capitulated. J.P. took office as senior class president and his record was expunged of any mention of the speech or alleged violations of the anti-harassment policy. PLF will continue to monitor the situation to make sure the school continues to respect J.P.’s First Amendment rights.

What’s At Stake?

  • The mere fact that someone might take offense at the content of speech is not a sufficient justification for the government to censor or punish it. High school speech codes must comply with the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.
  • Rather than sheltering students from any potential hurt feelings, schools should teach students that they should expect to hear opinions opposed to their views and stand ready to engage those opinions in the marketplace of ideas. A school policy that effectively bans debate disserves students.

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