At Joliet West’s home football game on Friday night against Plainfield Central, several West players took a knee during the national anthem. The remaining Joliet West players locked arms as a symbol of unity. Protests of this nature began last season in the NFL in an effort to bring attention to various social issues throughout the country. This season more NFL players have been participating in these protests and as a result similar protests are now making there way to college and high school sporting events. The following statement from Joliet Township High School District Superintendent Dr. Cheryl McCarthy was given to WJOL on Wednesday night after the station make numerous attempts to speak to the Superintendent on the air:
“At this time, I will not be speaking directly to the students. However, teachers and coaches are working with their students to help them understand the avenues available for them to express their personal opinions while displaying good citizenship. It is possible that student athletes may continue to exercise their first amendment rights in peaceful protest during upcoming athletic events. A major tenet of education is to teach critical thinking and civil engagement. We encourage teachers and coaches to use instances such as these as teachable moments. In terms of student rights regarding this matter, there is little to discuss. Courts have affirmed and reaffirmed that students do not check their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate and speech cannot be limited unless it creates a material disruption to the educational process. The following legal precedents show there are limits on public schools’ ability to address first amendment rights with discipline:
* In the 1943 case of West Virginia State Board of Education V. Barnette, the US Supreme court ruled that a school would violate the free- speech of its students who were Jehovah’s Witnesses if it forced them to stand for the pledge.
* Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District in 1969 The Vietnam War was in full force when the students at a Des Moines, Iowa, high school decided to wear black armbands to school one day to protest what they saw as an unjust struggle. The school administrators learned of their plan and passed a rule banning black armbands from the school and suspending any student caught wearing one. The students wore the armbands anyway, and as a result were suspended. They sued the school district and won. In writing in favor of the students for the majority, Justice Abe Fortas wrote these iconic words: “It can hardly be argued that students… shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate … School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students in school as well as out of school are ‘persons’ under our Constitution. They are possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect …” Please note that Fortas added an important caveat: conduct that “materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others is, of course, not immunized by the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech.” This standard, also known as the “material and substantial disruption test,” has remained the standard in which free speech is examined in public schools. Some student-athletes have been exercising their right to silently protest during the national anthem. We will continue to use situations such as these as teachable moments.”