Federal court rules in favor of free speech in Michigan

The ACLU and the Thomas More Law Center both supported a student's right to free speech in a high school classroom.

Federal District Court Patrick J. Duggan of the Eastern District of Michigan ruled that a teacher's actions to squelch free speech on the part of a student violated the First Amendment of the Constitution. According to the June 19 ruling, a teacher at a high school in Howell, a small town north of Ann Arbor, was reproved for throwing a student out of his class whose views differed from his own.

The Michigan court found that punishment meted out to student Daniel Glowacki for expressing his beliefs about homosexuality violated the Constitution. In its findings, the court described how the teacher, Johnson McDowell, initiated a discussion about homosexuality, and wore a purple t-shirt advocating a homosexual agenda. When the 16 year-old plaintiff Daniel Glowacki stated that homosexuality was against his Catholic beliefs, the enraged teacher then threw him out of class. 

The teacher in the lawsuit, however, tried to blame Glowacki, claiming that the boy had caused a disturbance in the classroom.  However, affidavits provided by students present in the classroom, as well as statements made by the teacher, did not support the teacher's affirmations in the law suit. The teacher also tried to argue that boy's stated beliefs were tantamount to “bullying.”  The Court dismissed that claim as well, and held that the boy's exercise of free speech could not be silenced because the teacher's stated viewpoint.

According to the Thomas More Center, which took the side of the plaintiff, "The Court’s opinion echoed the longstanding legal precedent that 'students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.'  Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 506 (1969).

The court declared in its finding, "While the Court certainly recognizes that schools are empowered to regulate speech to prevent students from invading the rights of other students, people do not have a legal right to prevent criticism of their beliefs or for that matter their way of life.  Relatedly, a listeners’ reaction to speech is not a content-neutral basis for regulation.  While a student or perhaps several students may have been upset or offended by Daniel’s remarks, Tinker straight-forwardly tells us that, in order for school officials to justify prohibition of a particular expression of opinion, they must be able to show that this action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint. Simply put, the law does not establish a generalized hurt feelings defense to a high school’s violation of the First Amendment rights of its students."
 
The plaintiff's lead attorney, Erin Mersino, predicted that the teacher in question is expected to appeal the court's decision. Richard Thompson, who leads the Thomas More Law Center, said of the court's finding, "The purpose of our lawsuit was to protect students’ constitutional rights to free speech, defend religious liberty, and stop public schools from becoming indoctrination centers for the homosexual agenda.”

The plaintiff's attorneys originally filed its federal lawsuit in December 2012 against the teacher and the Howell Public School District.  The claims against the school district were dismissed, however, and the court held that the teacher alone was the responsible party. The American Civil Liberties Union filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiff's case.



Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.

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