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Subscribe to this list via RSS Blog posts tagged in Free Speech

On the morning after Election Day 2008, four North Carolina State University students spray-painted racist graffiti in the “free expression tunnel” located on the NC State campus. Specifically, the statements found in the free expression tunnel on the morning of November 5, 2008 included “Hang Obama by a Noose” and “Let’s shoot that ni--er in the head.” Ku Klux Klan symbols were also found. Many African-American students were very frightened by the writings and were afraid to wear buttons supporting President-elect Obama to school on the day after Election Day, for fear that the statements were meant as a rallying cry for violence against African-American students. In response to the incident, the North Carolina Conference of the NAACP (NAACP NC), demanded the expulsion of the four students involved and also demanded the implementation of hate speech codes on all UNC-system campuses in North Carolina. We received requests for assistance from students concerned about the possibility of implementation of speech codes. Consequently, we sent a letter to President Bowles on the afternoon of November 25, 2008. On January 15, 2009, we spoke about our position before the UNC Study Commission formed to review student codes of conduct as they relate to hate crimes. Jennifer Rudinger attended another Commission hearing on January 26, 2009. On March 31, 2009, the Commission issued its findings, which recommended that “a University-wide policy be developed addressing hate crimes and acts of violence or intimidation.” The Commission further agreed that the recommendation should include protections of the constitutionally guaranteed rights of free speech and expression.

RALEIGH – The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF) today applauded a ruling earlier this month by New Hanover County District Court Judge John J. Carroll, III, dismissing a criminal citation issued by Wilmington police against Peter Barbeau for playing his saxophone on the sidewalk in downtown Wilmington. Despite the fact that many people enjoyed Mr. Barbeau’s music and he never received a single complaint, he was issued a criminal citation under a City of Wilmington ordinance that prohibits solicitations of any kind in the Central Business District. Judge Carroll dismissed the criminal charge, finding that the City of Wilmington’s ordinance against solicitations in the downtown area violated Mr. Barbeau’s right to free speech and expression. Specifically, the Order states that the solicitation ordinance “is an overbroad and hence unconstitutional restriction on speech in violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

“I am thrilled with the Court’s decision,” said Barbeau, who has a degree in jazz composition and arranging from the prestigious Berklee College of Music. “I knew that the City had no right to prevent me from playing my music on a public sidewalk. My rights – and those of other street musicians in Wilmington – have been vindicated. I am looking forward to getting back to my preferred spot at the corner of Front and Market Streets and performing with other musicians.”

“Today is a good day for two of my great loves – the First Amendment and music,” said Katy Parker, Legal Director for the ACLU-NCLF. ”We hope that the City will now amend its ordinance so that others may also enjoy the right to free expression in the public square.”

The ACLU-NCLF and the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) were contacted in May by the parent of a student at Purnell Swett High School in Pembroke who wanted to wear eagle feathers on either his cap or gown during his graduation ceremony on Friday, June 13, 2008.

Samuel Bird, father of Corey Bird (pictured), contacted the organizations, seeking assistance after Principal Wilkins informed Corey that he could not wear his eagle feathers in light of a mandatory graduation dress code policy that prohibited students from wearing “[m]essages, signs, markings, stringers, ribbons, etc.” on their “cap[s] or gown[s].” Corey indicated that he wanted to wear the feathers for religious and spiritual reasons in order to honor his late mother and grandfather. When it became apparent that school officials intended to stand by Principal Wilkins’s decision to prohibit Corey from wearing his feathers, ACLU-NCLF and NARF sent a letter to the school district on June 5, 2008, urging the district to reconsider its decision. Robeson County is approximately 40% Native American, principally Lumbee, according to the U.S. Census. Consequently, ACLU-NCLF and NARF argued that providing the Lumbee and other Native American students in Robeson County an opportunity to wear their eagle feathers would signify support for this significant portion of the population. The June 5th letter also explained that there is legal authority in this federal district for carving out an exception to the mandatory dress code only for those students (and their parents) who demonstrate a sincerely-held religious belief.

In addition to sending the June 5th letter, Rebecca Headen, coordinator of ACLU-NCLF’s Racial Justice Project, and Katy Parker, Legal Director of ACLU-NCLF traveled to Lumberton for the Robeson County School Board meeting on June 10, 2008, and spoke on behalf of Corey and his father. Corey and his father also spoke at the school board meeting. In light of ACLU-NCLF and NARF intervention, the school board decided to resolve the matter informally and permitted Corey to wear his feathers at graduation.

Thanks to generous support from ACLU members Doug and Shirley Johnson of Oberlin, Ohio, the ACLU-NCLF is thrilled to announce the creation of the Natalie Fiess Fund for the Preservation of Civil Liberties and Religious Freedom (the “Fiess Fund”).  These funds are designated for use by the ACLU-NCLF for the publication and dissemination of informational booklets to local government officials, school board members, and the attorneys who advise them.  These booklets were researched and drafted by Loyola law student Rebecca Husman during the Summer and Fall of 2007, and they are currently being revised and edited by ACLU-NCLF Legal Director Katy Parker. 

There are four booklets being produced.  Two will be disseminated to school board members, school officials, and the attorneys who advise them, and the topics covered are: (1.) religious liberty issues that arise in public school settings (school-led prayers, students’ religious freedom rights, religious symbols in the classroom, Bible curricula, the dissemination of Bibles or other holy texts on school property, students’ rights to form a Bible club or other religious club, etc.) and the relevant case law governing these situations, and (2.) other civil liberties issues that arise in public school settings, i.e. free speech, due process, the rights of students, faculty and staff to abstain from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, drug testing, searches of students’ property, equal protection for GLBT students, minority students, and students with disabilities, and the relevant case law governing these situations and many more.  The ACLU-NCLF already produces Know-Your-Rights booklets for public school students on religious liberty issues and other civil liberties issues, as we have done for years.  This new project is designed to inform the decision-makers in school districts, with the aim of reducing the number of civil liberties violations that occur by educating decision-makers before they are faced with making decisions on issues that affect students’ constitutional rights.

The second set of booklets will be disseminated to local government officials (city council members, county commissioners, etc.) and the attorneys who advise them.  One booklet covers religious liberty issues that arise in local government settings, i.e. holiday displays on public property, prayers opening official government meetings, the use of religious texts for administering courtroom oaths, and many other situations in which local government officials are faced with religious liberty issues, and explains the relevant case law governing these situations.  The second booklet for local government officials covers other civil liberties issues that arise, i.e. teen curfews, panhandling ordinances, parade and permit issues, local sign ordinances, local enforcement of immigration laws, access to government buildings, and more, including relevant case law.