Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


The Silencing of the Sitters

By Shawn Healy
I know that I'm late wading into the waters of the free speech controversy that erupted at Morton West High School in Berwyn, IL, on November 1st, and was apparently resolved as of yesterday, but like the general public, I too was trying to get a grip on a series of developments that attracted national media attention. Let's examine the facts of the case, then determine whether or not administrators were in the right to stifle a student protest.

On November 1st, 38 students (although some sources claim up to 200!) gathered in the school cafeteria to protest the Iraq War and military recruiters who frequent campus. The "sit-in" was broken up by District 201 Superintendent Ben Nowakowski, who instructed the protesters to move to an alternative area. They complied, proceeding to a small hallway outside the principal's office, later locking arms, singing anti-war songs, and discussing the war's global impact. This instigated police intervention and interfered with the regular class schedule as their peers were held in classrooms until the protest was broken up.

The students were allegedly promised that they would face no disciplinary action if they moved, but lingering students were served ten-day suspensions at the end of the school day, and threatened with expulsion for "gross disobedience" and "mob action." One of the participants, junior Matt Heffernan, was shocked with the verdict: "We had the sit-in. So I had mixed feelings of confidence--of a job well done--and fright, because my whole educational career is at risk."

These students and their parents didn't go down without a fight, claiming that the punishment was excessive and unfairly allocated, as honor students and varsity athletes allegedly received shorter suspensions (5 days) without an expulsion threat.

Jonathon Acevedo, a student who faced expulsion, was defended by his aunt, Gladys Hansen-Guerra, who argued that he was singled out because he was an average student and Latino. She complicated her argument by suggesting that "the administration is giving harder punishments to students who won't tell them who organized the protest. It was a group effort. They are trying to offer leniency to those who can point out the organizers."

Yesterday, the district ceded to public pressure/came to its senses/concluded after a thorough investigation (take your pick), and removed the expulsion threat from the remaining 18 students still suspended. 14 of the 18 were cleared to return to classes today, while the remaining 4, who were the identified organizers, will return on Friday.

The case may be closed, but it is certainly worthy of constitutional scrutiny. I must admit that I stayed away from the controversy for the very reason that students' First Amendment rights are not absolute in a school environment.

Public schools may censor speech that occurs at school-sponsored events for "legitimate pedagogical reasons," and also punish students for speech that is "lewd," "vulgar," or promotes illegal drug use. These precedents don't apply here, but the landmark Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines does. The precedent relates to student-initiated speech and expression like that exercised by the Morton West students, and argues that students' First Amendment rights to not end "at the schoolhouse gate." The majority opinion did, however, include a caveat, allowing for curtailment of student speech that represents a "material or substantial disruption" to the educational environment.

I had a hard time sifting through the conflicting details of the Berwyn case as it unfolded, but it does appear as if the protest did "substantially" disrupt the learning environment, not just for the protesters, but also the other students who were stranded in classrooms as the school was in lockdown. The school district repeatedly suggested that this was not about students' First Amendment rights. There was partially accurate, at least in terms of their right to infringe upon them.

The more troubling issue is the punishments threatened and ultimately imposed by the district upon implicated students. The specifics of the case seem to suggest that expulsion was ludicrous, and even the ten-day suspensions border on excessive. Moreover, if the allegations are true about disproportionate punishment on the basis of GPA and athletic affiliation, the school may have a 14th Amendment equal protection case on their hands. We'll await the final verdict on that should a lawsuit surface.

On a larger level, just because the school can crack down on student speech does not mean they should. Edward D. Juillard of Morgan Park, IL, in a letter to the editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, summarized this frustration quite well in the passage that follows:
It is a very sad commentary on the state of our democracy that students exercising their constitutional rights are expelled. Recruiters are preying on our young, especially targeting the poor, and are allowed full access to public schools when the very war they are promoting is robbing our nation's schools of much-needed funding. If students have the audacity to speak out about this obvious injustice, they are told to shut up and get out. The real lesson they take away from this travesty of justice is that in this "land of the free," there is no free speech for those who are poor and without power. They've been told loud and clear: You are good enough to die for your country but not good enough to stand up for your rights.

In the end, it's fitting to turn to the boundless optimism of the young. Senior Joshua Rodriguez, a participant in the sit-in and recipient of a suspension, said, "I don't regret the protest because I brought a lot of people to this question--about Iraq and what it's doing to our country." Right or wrong, one has to admire his sense of purpose and resilience.


Blogger Greg said...

Great summary of the case and the potential constitutional sticking points. I had not kept up on this story much and had totally missed the poignant letter to the editor in the Tribune. Thanks for giving us the facts and a solid analysis of what it all means.

12:54 PM  

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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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