ACLU sues after school gives Ferguson protester detention

ACLU sues after school gives Ferguson protester detention
The Missouri chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is suing the Kansas City School District on behalf of a student after administrators disciplined at least a dozen pupils for protesting a speech given by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon.

Nixon appeared at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy back on November 20, when he addressed students and awarded the school with a Blue Ribbon award for being one of the country’s best. During his speech, however, 12-14 students stood and put their hands in the air – referencing the “Hands up, don’t shoot” phrase that has become a rallying cry for police reform advocates in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death.

Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed African-American, was fatally shot by a Ferguson police officer on August 9. His death – and a subsequent grand jury decision not to indict the officer – sparked massive protests in Missouri, as well as around the United States.

Soon after standing with their hands up, the students walked out of Nixon’s speech. According to the ACLU, they were “ushered out of the auditorium” by the school, sent home, and threatened with a 10-day suspension. Ultimately, the school settled on disciplining the students with Saturday detention.

This discipline, the ACLU argues in its lawsuit, was unnecessary and violated the student’s First Amendment right to free speech.

“School administrators cannot punish students for communications they think will bring negative attention to the school,” Sarah Rossi, the Missouri ACLU’s director of advocacy and policy, said in its statement. “The First Amendment does not permit that.”

The spokeswoman for the school district, Eileen Houston Stewart, released a statement to KCTV 5 stating that the students were disciplined for failing to listen to instructions, not for expressing their thoughts.

“[The school district] constantly strives to cultivate a safe and secure environment that fosters effective teaching and learning,” the statement read. “During a [November 20] address by Missouri Governor Jay Nixon at Lincoln Prep, 12 students opted – of their own accord – to stage a silent protest. No student will be, or was disciplined, for exercising their rights to free expression.”

“During Governor Nixon's visit, students were instructed to sit down by an administrator, but refused. It is for this refusal, students are facing discipline in accordance with the district's Code of Conduct. Administrators have spoken with the students and their parents about their behavior at the school. The students were not suspended.”

Nevertheless, the ACLU argued that Kansas City schools should be pleased by the student behavior.

“This student was exercising her constitutional rights by expressing the message that she stood in solidarity with other protesters across Missouri and the country after the death of Michael Brown,” said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri. “The school should be proud to have taught their students to be confident in their right to express themselves to the Governor.”

At the time of the protest, Gov. Nixon said he understood where the students were coming from.

“That energy of those young folks, that’s what’s pushing everyone else to get some changes, and to make progress,” he told the Kansas City Star.“They are going to be – and need to be – a force so that we can be a better state and better society after this.”