First Amendment At DeKalb Schools

What First Amendment rights do students have at DeKalb Schools? On this blog, we have vigorously discussed the freedom of students to express themselves. We have examined several incidents and the school districts different responses over the years. DeKalb Schools has a habit of defending speech that is congruent with the prevailing political sentiment of the administrators while simultaneously calling speech they don’t like disruptive.

The district has previously released the following statement regarding their view of First Amendment rights,

“The DeKalb County School District supports the constitutional right of its students to freedom of speech, but it also requires that such exercises do not disrupt or degrade the learning environment. When that standard is violated, the district reviews each transgression on its own merits and uses the DCSD Student Code of Conduct as its guide in taking corrective action. Violations are considered disruptions of the school environment per the DCSD Student Code of Conduct.”

Last year, a Chamblee Charter HS student wore a “Fire Braaten” button. DeKalb Schools subsequently suspended the student and the student’s family filed a Federal lawsuit against DeKalb County School District over alleged free speech violations.

While the lawsuit is proceeding through the court system, a United States District Judge ruled on some motions and contemplated the First Amendment rights students have at DeKalb Schools. I thought the ruling was very interesting. You can read the entire ruling at the link below.

KB v DeKalb Schools – Ruling on Motion to Amend and Motion to Dismiss


The following quotes are taken from the “analysis” in the United States District Judge’s ruling.

“First Amendment rights, applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment, are available to teachers and students. It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” (dtmg Barnette, 319 U.S. at 637; Near v. Minnesota, 283 U.S. 697, 707 (1931))

“In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. 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, just as they themselves must respect their obligations to the State. In our system, students may not be regarded as closed-circuit recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate. They may not be confined to the expression of those sentiments that are officially approved. In the absence of a specific showing of constitutionally valid reasons to regulate their speech, students are entitled to freedom of expression of their views.” (Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmtv. Sch. Dist, 393 U.S. 503, 506 (1969))

“These fundamental values of “habits and manners of civility” essential to a democratic society must, of course, include tolerance of divergent political and religious views, even when the views expressed may be unpopular. But these “fundamental values” must also take into account consideration of the sensibilities of others, and, in the case of a school, the sensibilities of fellow students. The undoubted freedom to advocate unpopular and controversial views in schools and classrooms must be balanced against the society’s countervailing interest in teaching students the boundaries of socially appropriate behavior. Even the most heated political discourse in a democratic society requires consideration for the personal sensibilities of the other participants and audiences.” (Ambach v. Norwich, 441 U.S. 68, 76-66 (1979))

“However, in assessing the reasonableness of regulations that tread upon expression, we cannot simply defer to the specter of disruption or the mere theoretical possibility of discord, or even some de minimis, insubstantial impact on classroom decomm. Particularly given the fact that young people are required by law to spend a substantial portion of their lives in classrooms, student expression may not be suppressed simply because it gives rise to some slight, easily overlooked disruption, including but not limited to “a showing of mild curiosity” by other students, “discussion and comment” among students, or even some “hostile remarks” or “discussion outside of the classrooms” by other students.” (Fraser, 478 U.S. at 683, 685)

Whether Defendants Violated the First Amendment by Restricting K.B.’s Speech
“DeKalb Schools contends that K.B.’s stickers were materially disruptive and therefore not protected speech. Given the allegations in the Proposed Complaint, the Court is not persuaded. The Court cannot identify “demonstrable factors that would give rise to any reasonable forecast by the school administration of ‘substantial and material’ disruption of school activities.” (See Holloman, 370 F.3d at 1273). Rather, it appears that K.B.’s stickers could have “give[n] rise to some slight, easily overlooked disruption” at most.”

Related Articles

Free Speech … For Some At DeKalb Schools … Part II
October 17, 2018 – I advocate for the First Amendment across the board. I’m concerned once again the freedom of students to express themselves is not being equally defended. It would seem that the school district only defends speech they agree with and calls all other speech disruptive.

Protesting Cheerleaders at DHS – The Whole Story
December 17, 2017 – A black cheerleader was auto cropped out of a cheerleader squad picture when the photo was auto formatted for printing by an online system. Some students sprung into action blaming the cheerleader squad for an intentional action demonstrating racial bias. A protest for this non-event is planned for tomorrow morning and sanctioned by the school district.


DeKalb Schools – Free Speech….For Some?
November 10, 2017 – DeKalb Schools might have a consistency problem with the First Amendment.
We received a phone call from the principal of the middle school this morning informing us that Jaxon was not allowed to wear an FNN-Fake News Network shirt.

DeKalb Schools
Students Kneel During National Anthem

October 13, 2017 – The girls at Cedar Grove High School in DeKalb County took a knee before their playoff game. “Basically right now, the flag doesn’t’ mean what it’s supposed to, to me.” a student said.

20 responses to “First Amendment At DeKalb Schools

  1. I agree with the the judges ruling. I have witnessed poor judgement from well meaning administrators countless times. I have seen a few smart administrators handle possible legal vulnerability with grand finesse. What makes the difference? Maybe administrators should have easy access to staff attorneys so they can discuss difficult issues. These are litigious times and not all administrators know the law.

  2. Disruption, or lack thereof, is not a right of the government. In fact, The government only inherits those rights which the people deem fit. And the 1st Amendment actually guarantees the right of the individual to disrupt/express themselves, even in ways that many people may find intolerable. In this instance the student could be seen as going out of their way to be as least disruptive to the educational process as possible, by fabricating a sticker, while still exercising their constitutional right to self expression. In addition, the expression at hand here directly relates to the location and administration of the institution the student is required to attend, hence apropos and on topic for the student and those other students around them. It’s no different than if a voting adult were to attend a function with the president of the US and wore a sticker that said “Impeach Trump” or some other relevant political slogan.

    It’s offensive that our tax dollars are wasted on this type of lawsuit and that the issue wasn’t just handled in a more logical or sensitive manner. The county & DCSD attorneys should be fired for even defending this lawsuit and not settling out of court.

  3. @Rob…so well said. So on point. Dekalb attorneys should have settled this out of court.

  4. Stan Jester

    You can blame the administration for getting us into this mess. Don’t blame the administration altogether for not settling. I’m not at liberty to discuss the details of executive session.

  5. As a lay citizen, I am not going to argue the legal merits of the case.

    I will say showing up as a guest with a clearly abrasive political slogan on a tee-shirt is probably going to be offensive to the host. Is the message more important than being civil? In other words, the lesson is effectively making a statement while remaining civil.

    In life, we learn that one may gain more by a cleverly worded statement than a clear affront to their host. (Honey v. Vinegar) To others, niceties like manners aren’t as important as their point of view, and that makes me sad.

    Hopefully, we can teach our kids to become strong, independent leaders, without shredding the merits of decency and civility.

  6. Stan Jester

    Hello @Max. Thank for joining the conversation. CNN is a major news network that was caught admitting in a secret recording running fake news stories for the ratings. Are you suggesting that a major news network can’t handle questions from a 12 year old about their integrity? It costs $11/child and $13/adult for admission. Let’s not pretend CNN is a gracious host giving tours out of the goodness of their heart.

    Instead of stifling the discussion, this would have been an excellent point of discussion. I would like to see our institutions promote civil discussions. Unfortunately, people shut down speech they don’t agree with … which is the lesson my son learned that day.

    Hopefully, this week the school district learned that state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism.

  7. Stan, in the “Fire Braatten” case, do you know what KB is suing for? Is there a monetary amount, or does that get addressed only if KB’s case succeeds? In other words, what is the risk to DCSD?

    I read over the court’s decision, with my non-lawyer background, and it sure sounds like KB has a strong case. The folks named in the suit were likely frustrated with the overwhelming public support for new school leadership, and thought they could easily intimidate and squash dissent by students even if they couldn’t stop parents.

    It would be interesting to learn why Mr. Spears was in charge of the “Fire Braatten” disciplinary action. I do not believe that he was the Assistant Principal for Discipline. However, he was new to CCHS like Principal Braatten, and seemed to be her most trusted administrator.

    It’s such a shame when an event like this escalates into risky litigation, when it could have been handled differently, as a “teachable moment.” I think the stickers were in bad taste but certainly well within “free speech” guidelines.

  8. Stan Jester

    I’m not sure what restitution the plaintiff is seeking. I imagine it’s public record … just have to look for it.

  9. dekalbteacher

    My current elementary school principal sides with the parent in most all situations. There was an incident at my school in which a student yelled out, “Jesus Christ” in frustration last year in a classroom on my hall. The teacher told the student that was not appropriate at school and had the student complete her classroom behavior reflection form. This requires the student reflect on his/her action(s), why that was his/her response, and what would be an alternative next time. Other teachers have adopted the teacher’s method because it’s been so effective and is in line with the school’s positive discipline system. The parent then signs at home, and, hopefully has a conversation with the child. The teacher not only got an angry phone call from the parent, telling her how wrong she was, and that there is nothing wrong with the child saying this in class, she was called into the principal’s office. The principal told the teacher she was wrong in sending home a behavior reflection page, and the child was expressing his freedom of speech. Funny, because the other parents didn’t feel that way. And the masses of teachers leaving the school would signal they are fed up with a principal who sides with parents, right or wrong.

  10. Stan Jester

    @DeKalbTeacher … good comment.
    Personally, I don’t condone vulgar, lewd, profane or plainly offensive speech at public schools. The courts would agree. Your anecdote is about language found to be plainly offensive. This is different in that the school district falls back on “disruptive speech” in cases where they don’t like what somebody is saying.

    Vulgar/Lewd speech – To your point, DekalbTeacher, what is vulgar, lewd, profane, etc … speech? I’m not sure how the courts define it, but I’m guessing it gets gray fast. What about substitutes for profanity like “aw snap” or “oh fudge”?

    DeKalbTeacher, is it possible to let the student know that something like that is offensive before going directly to punishment? Seems like intentional profane language without stopping after a reminder might constitute further action. Then again, I’m not in the classroom … so I’m genuinely asking.

  11. Nancy Jester

    Max – This Federal law suit does not involve my child and this blog post isn’t about my child. A student (quite an academically impressive one if you read the ruling) at CCHS was suspended for a sticker that said to fire the principal. A ruling in that case is the subject of this blog. The Federal Court is stating that: “…we cannot simply defer to the specter of disruption or the mere theoretical possibility of discord, or even some de minimis, insubstantial impact on classroom decorum.” That means we all have the right, including students in public school, to express ourselves even if these expressions are displeasing to others. Teachers also have right in this regard. One of my students recently had a teacher who expressed outward hostility toward any positive view of the origins of this nation. During class discussion, when students expressed a different perspective, they were told to “shut up”. I’ve heard the tape. I hope that people are not so fragile and brittle that they cannot accept different view points being advocated by kids, especially given some of the academically and politically constraining circumstances in which they find themselves. Thank goodness that our Federal Court has a judge that understands a child with sticker that really tweaks the adults has every right to that quite and meaningful expression. Ditto a t-shirt.

  12. dekalbteacher

    When this incident happened to my coworker, we actually did discuss. The teachers involved in the discussion were all in agreement that having the student reflect on his action was appropriate since other students were clearly going to mention this to their parents, given their reactions in class. And, yes, the teacher had questions from other parents. People wonder why teachers are leaving in droves. Lack of support from administration and parents is a top factor.

  13. Michael Pastirik

    Mr. Jester,

    I am sorry for going off topic, but I am hoping that you would offer a comment, opinion, solution, etc. about the problems/concerns presented in a recent article in the AJC concerning the Teacher Retirement System of Georgia – TRS, not the TSA (which we are awaiting a decision by the court). The TRS is of even greater concern than the TSA issue. Gosh golly, with no Social Security benefits, and a deflated TSA, Dekalb teachers could be in line for some difficulty as per their financial security in their retirement years.

    Thank you.

    mike p

  14. Mr. Jester,

    I am sorry for going off topic, but I am hoping that you would offer a comment, opinion, solution, etc. about the problems/concerns presented in a recent article in the AJC concerning the Teacher Retirement System of Georgia – TRS, not the TSA (which we are awaiting a decision by the court). The TRS is of even greater concern than the TSA issue. Gosh golly, with no Social Security benefits, and a deflated TSA, Dekalb teachers could be in line for some difficulty as per their financial security in their retirement years.

    Thank you.

    mike p

  15. Stan Jester

    Hello@ Michael Pastirik, That’s an important topic. The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Georgia is completely run by the state. The district makes contributions. Essentially, the state dictates what that yearly contribution will be. The school district has no discretion and must contribute the state required amount annually. There has been recent news coverage about the health of the TRS. I understand that the legislature is studying this issue and will likely take up the matter in future sessions. I believe they will act to shore up assets for the obligations that the TRS has to current retirees and teachers. Any changes to the plan, will likely be for any new participants that get hired in the future. That is simply my speculation and not a guarantee.

  16. Michael Pastirik

    Thank you!

    mike p

  17. Mr. Jester
    I am not sure that DeKalb has any real policies and procedures. It seems like certain decisions are made on a case by case basis depending on who it involves. As long as we act like this, we will always be open to lawsuits and questions. I posted two links to recent articles that for me demonstrate DeKalb’s lack of decision-making. I could also add the recent problems with the pay scale and DeKalb backing out on its word concerning the TSA Payments. Also not having careful audit processes in place. I think all of these issues are part of DeKalb not having consistent policies in place that should be the same for everyone.

    Do we really have no policy related to teachers being arrested or is it based on certain charges?

    If he was not eligible , why was he allowed to run?. This just seems like DeKalb is being unfair and just plain mean.

  18. Stan Jester

    I’m disheartened with everything about the Coach OD issues since day 1.

    Policies – When we went over the background check policy, I pushed for some definition around what to do with the results of the background checks. What is acceptable and who decides?

  19. Bless you and Nancy and your family. Thank you so much for trying hard to do the right thing.

  20. @Stan, I hope you will ask those same questions around the proposed background checks for volunteers. If DCSD can’t handle the background checks for 6600 teachers/staff, how do they think they can manage them for family members/community members of 98,000 students?