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Reasonable Discipline in Schools Does Not Infringe on Students' Rights

Op-Ed

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By: Rep. John Boehner

Sometimes good news from Washington goes under- or even un-reported. Take the recent ruling from the John Roberts-led Supreme Court that came down in favor of a principal who suspended a student over a banner that appeared to advocate drug use.

In the run-up to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, the Olympic torch passed through Juneau, Alaska, where people lined the streets to cheer it. Across the street from a local high school, a group of students posted a 14-foot banner that contained a drug reference, and the principal ordered the students to remove their sign. One student, who was suspended over the incident, sued his way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Too often, principals and teachers who exercise reasonable discipline in public schools and classrooms find themselves on the losing end of courts that defy common sense. While the student argued that his 1st Amendment right of free speech had been violated, the Court determined that a school principal could restrict a student's speech "at a school event, when the speech is reasonably viewed as promoting illegal drug use."

It's got to be tough being a high school principal - not only are you responsible for overseeing the education and well-being of hundreds of students, but there's administrative functions, teachers and parents all vying for your time. And in the midst of all that, principals have the threats of drugs and school violence to be concerned with.

And so in Alaska a principal who sees a student waving a banner that contains a clear reference to drugs enforces reasonable discipline and winds up sued for restricting that student's free speech. The 1st Amendment provides an unrestricted right to free speech; it doesn't provide for encouraging people to break the law, which is what the student's banner advocated with its drug reference.

One thing that I know being a parent is that children will push their boundaries, testing to see how far they can go and how much they can get away with. Principals and teachers watch their students test the boundaries and when necessary, should enforce punishments that fit the violations. In this case, a principal demanded a banner she saw as promoting drugs at a school-sponsored event be removed and suspended a student who defied her authority.
I applaud the Roberts' Court for ruling in favor of the principal who enforced responsible discipline at her school. More important, I applaud and thank our principals and teachers who educate our students and teach them that actions have consequences. And sometimes those consequences must be to accept reasonable punishment for breaking the rules.

Boehner represents Ohio's 8th District, which includes all of Darke, Miami and Preble counties, most of Butler and Mercer counties, and the northeastern corner of Montgomery County. He was first elected to Congress in 1990.


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