The Equal Access Act and Ashley Irvine
The Equal Access Act allows students to organize student-led, special interest, non-curriculum clubs in most US high schools--specifically, those schools that receive federal funding and already have a "limited open forum". A limited open forum exists when a school allows one or more non-curriculum student-led groups to meet on school premises during noninstructional time. The Hollis Brookline High School (HBHS) meets these two criteria--it does receive federal funds and it does have several non-curriculum related clubs, including an outing club, snowboard club, SADD and investment club, to name a few.
The October 19, 2001 Hollis-Brookline Journal contained a front-page story about Ashley Irvine, then a junior at HBHS, who had organized a peace rally to be held in front of Nashua City Hall on October 20. The article states that Ashley was "surprised that she was not allowed to hang her homemade anti-war posters on the walls of the high school. Principal Frank Bass told the Journal that since the rally is not a school-sponsored event, and the school is part of the state Department of Education and an "arm of the US government" he does not want to advertise an anti-war rally on the school walls." Click here for the full article.
In that same issue of the Hollis Brookline Journal was an editorial on the subject by Michael Cleveland. It discusses the "difficult task" of a high school principal, but closes with "we sympathize with Dr. Bass, but we think that, next time, some compromise should be reached". Click here for the full editorial.
Several weeks later, the Journal printed a Letter to the Editor entitled "Three Cheers for Ashley; boos for school administration". The writer correctly points out that "schools are supposed to encourage independent thinking, individual initiative and all those characteristics that help youth to become constructive members of a democratic society." Click here for the full letter.
While we may not agree with Ashley's views on the bombing of Afghanistan, we strongly support her right to express her opinions and to have the same access to school facilities (including walls) that other clubs have, as guaranteed by the Equal Access Act.
Did the school violate the Equal Access Act? We think so. Ashley was clearly a member of a club--Amnesty International--that she had started the previous year. In the 1990 US Supreme Court decision referred to as Mergens, the Westside High School already allowed a Christian club to meet informally in the school after school hours, but the club was denied the official recognition that gave other clubs access to the school newspaper, bulletin boards, the public address system and the annual Club Fair. The Court found that the school had violated the Act. Thus, if any club is given access to the school newspaper, bulletin board, PA system, annual Club Fair, copy machines, or any other school facilities, then a school cannot prohibit the same access to other groups. As one group is treated, all groups must be treated.
But what about Dr. Bass's claim that the peace rally at Nashua City Hall was not a school-sponsored event? The off-campus location should not matter, as school clubs frequently arrange off-campus activities (ski trips, etc.) that they advertise at school. Nor should the fact that non-students might attend the rally--many clubs sponsor activities that non-students are welcome to attend.
We believe the Hollis Brookline High School owes Ashley an apology not just for stifling her ability to express her views, but for violating her rights under the Equal Access Act. School administrators should encourage independent thought and debate on issues, not impose their own set of values. We strongly encourage students to form clubs in their areas of interest and demand the equal access that the law guarantees.
Several other examples of students attempting to exercise their free speech rights regarding war in the aftermath of 9/11, including one involving the hanging of anti-war posters in an Alexandria, Virginia school by student members of Amnesty International and a second involving a student suspended for posters placed on his locker, show that the expression of political views is not always supported or even tolerated by school officials. Ironically, the landmark 1969 Tinker Supreme Court case was all about the rights of students to protest US involvement in a war they disagreed with--the Vietnam War.
Last updated March 2003