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School District Learns a Free Speech Lesson

School District Learns a Free Speech Lesson

What began as a demonstration against abortion in front of a Pennsylvania high school became a lesson in constitutionally protected free speech for Downingtown Area School District students and staff.

A Holocaust symposium at Downingtown West High School on April 21 offered an opportune venue for siblings Lauren and Conner Haines, ages 19 and 16, to share their views on another holocaust—the millions of lives lost to abortion. The homeschool students set out to that campus with the gospel message and three pro-life posters, including one with an image of an aborted baby. The pair stopped first on the public sidewalk outside the STEM Academy, down the street from their original destination, as students were being dismissed for the day.

During an 18-minute recorded encounter with STEM Academy Vice Principal Zach Ruff, he repeatedly told the siblings to leave, saying they and the babies represented on the poster could “go to hell.” At one point, Ruff attempted to grab the signs, an act of assault under Pennsylvania law. Students and parents witnessed the alleged verbal and physical assault.

Ruff’s actions earned him an unpaid suspension and ultimately cost him his job. The school district received a legal reproach of its own.

Attorneys for the Haines siblings sent a demand letter to the district asking officials to acknowledge Ruff violated the pair’s free speech rights. They should then communicate that acknowledgment to all district employees and, perhaps most importantly, the district’s students, some of whom indicated they agreed with Ruff’s actions, according to the letter.

The Downingtown Area School District replied July 14 to the Alliance Defending Freedom’s (ADF) letter acknowledging Ruff’s illegal actions and warning its employees that violating a student’s free speech rights can result in “discipline, including discharge.”

District employees will be required to review district policy and state board regulations on First Amendment rights. District administrators will also be required to read two articles about freedom of speech. Both articles are linked to Wikipedia, a website many high school and college students are not allowed to cite in their school research.

And the lesson learned by some observers? Government officials can shut down disagreeable speech.

In the demand letter, an ADF attorney said parents and students “followed Ruff’s example” by sending the Haineses hundreds of messages, some with threatening and vulgar language, “indicating they completely misunderstand the concept of free speech.”

“The hostility to the First Amendment by the next generation may be even more dangerous than that of a school official,” ADF attorney Kevin Theriot said in the letter.


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Publication date: August 7, 2017