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Johnson “Jay” McDowell, a Michigan high school economics teacher, was found in violation of a former student’s First Amendment right to free speech. The former student, Daniel Glowacki, expressed views that homosexuality was against his religion.
The facts of the case arise out of a student group’s attempt at bringing awareness to bullying against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students. The student group sold t-shirts for students and staff to wear in recognition of “Anti-Bullying Day.” McDowell purchased a t-shirt and planned part of his lesson to include brief information about bullying of homosexuals.
Glowacki was a student in McDowell’s class and stated that homosexuality was against his religious beliefs. McDowell told Glowacki to leave the class and he later wrote an office referral because he deemed Glowacki’s behavior unacceptable because it might offend students in the class. Glowacki filed a lawsuit against the school district and McDowell, claiming a violation of his First Amendment right to free speech and Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection.
Judge Patrick J. Duggan ruled in favor of Glowacki on his First Amendment claims based on the court’s application of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District (1969). Tinker is one of the most important standards when assessing whether student speech is protected under the First Amendment.
Tinker recognized that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” This does not mean that students can say whatever they want to say and claim protection under the First Amendment. The Supreme Court in Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser (1986) clearly explained that “the constitutional rights of students in public school are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings.” Coupled with Tinker, the Fraser decision means that although students have some rights within the public school setting, those rights are not as comprehensive as adults in other settings. The public school has an interest in maintaining safety, order, and a comfortable educational environment so that learning can occur.
Under Tinker, student speech is protected unless it “would materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.” Judge Duggan, in the present case, found that Glowacki’s speech did not materially and substantially disrupt the educational environment. The court explained that Glowacki’s speech did not present a threat to anyone or invade the rights of other students. Furthermore, his comment was not targeted to an individual student. Glowacki expressed a general opinion of his personal beliefs, even if his opinion may have been disagreeable to other students. Although his comment may not have been liked by other students or McDowell, the court found that his speech did not cause a substantial disruption to the educational process.
Judge Duggan further opinioned that “
Student speech is not always protected. In Fraser, the Supreme Court upheld a student’s suspension because the lewd speech he gave at a school assembly was not protected by the First Amendment.
In the present case, McDowell was ordered to pay $1 in nominal damages. Glowacki’s other claims were dismissed. The claims against the school district were also dismissed.