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Kansas district settles suit that accused it of infringing on student free speech

Shawnee Mission district officials were accused of stopping student rallies on National Student Walkout Day in April 2018.

The Shawnee Mission (Kan.) school board has settled a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union that accused the district of violating students’ First Amendment rights during a protest against gun violence.

The Kansas City Star reports that ACLU had contended in the suit that the district infringed on students’ freedom of speech when school officials abruptly stopped student-led rallies for National Student Walkout Day in April 2018. 

School officials also allegedly limited student speech at the rallies and snatched cameras away from a student journalist taking photos. Some of the students said they were told they would face disciplinary action for participating in the protests and talking about gun violence.

The ACLU of Kansas announced that it had reached a settlement agreement with the district. The settlement is not final until a judge approves. Until then, the details will not be disclosed.

“The district has agreed to concrete steps that we think will protect student rights,” says Lauren Bonds, legal director and interim executive director of the ACLU chapter.

The student-led walkouts and rallies on April 20 were scheduled to last for 17 minutes to mark the deaths of 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. The students were protesting gun violence and supporting increased school safety.

The students who brought the suit are identified only by initials:

▪ M.C., who was an eighth-grader at Hocker Grove Middle School, was interrupted and threatened with discipline by a school administrator because she mentioned gun violence, the suit says. She was also suspended for protesting the cancellation of the middle school event.

▪ S.W., who was a junior at Shawnee Mission North High School, was a student journalist whose camera — owned by the district but checked out to her for the year — was confiscated when she was trying to photograph the portion of the protest that lasted beyond the agreed 17-minute walkout.

▪ G. A., who was also a junior at North, was a student journalist for the school newspaper. The suit says G.A. was denied the right to hear the students’ intended message about gun violence.

As of late November, the district had spent more than $36,000 on legal fees associated with the case.

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