Court Holds Students’ Right to Free Speech in Pro-Gun Rights Protest Potentially Violated, Allows Lawsuit to Proceed

On May 15, 2019, Northern District of Illinois Judge Reinhard decided to allow a student’s claims regarding an alleged violation of her First Amendment rights in M.O. v. Hononegah Cmty. High Sch. Dist. #207, 2019 WL 2124959 (N.D. Ill. 2019) to proceed, partially denying the Defendants’ motion to dismiss. The student’s suit against Hononegah #207, its Superintendent, and the Principal and Assistant Principal of her high school, claims that Defendants’ actions during a set of pro- and anti-gun control student protests violated her free speech, equal protection, and due process rights.

In the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, a group of students at Hononegah Community High School (HCHS) organized a walkout to protest current gun control policies as inadequate. At 10:00 a.m. on March 14, 2018, approximately fifty to seventy-five students exited the HCHS building under the direction of school personnel and staged a “die-in” at the football field. Plaintiff and approximately five other students simultaneously attempted to engage in an anti-gun control protest, intending to march to the same football stadium with signs that read “Pro Life, Pro God, Pro Gun” and “Protect Us, Police For All Schools.”

The HCHS Principal and Assistant Principal decided to require Plaintiff and her fellow counter-protestors to wait in the school building until the other students had left and then directed them to stand with their signs on the sidewalk near the front door to HCHS, outside the football field and separated by a parking lot. The Assistant Principal stated that he was separating them in this manner because he was concerned that allowing them onto the field would “disturb the peace and start a fight.” Nevertheless, they were eventually allowed to stand just inside the football field’s fence, out of the other protestors’ sight or hearing. At the end of the walkout, Plaintiff’s group was held aside while the other students returned to the building and administrators allegedly failed to prevent classmates from taunting Plaintiff’s group while walking past.

Plaintiff alleged that separating her group from the pro-gun control protestors violated her constitutional rights, and that specific statements by the Principal and Assistant Principal indicated that their decisions were motivated by viewpoint bias. Specifically, she alleged that the Principal and Assistant Principal acted in a derogatory manner toward her group, calling them “troublemakers” who were “the only ones who feel that way” in reference to their gun-rights opinions. She further alleged that they were singled out in being instructed not to bully other students about their opinions on the matter while permitting the pro-gun control students to engage in bullying behavior with repercussion. Lastly, she alleged that the school district’s policies provided the pro-gun control students unfair advantages.

Judge Reinhard declined to rule on the merits of the student’s suit, holding only that the Plaintiff had adequately stated claims to survive the motion to dismiss, and granted leave to amend her complaint to correctly identify which claims properly applied to which defendants. However, Judge Reinhard wrote that, while he found few constitutional concerns with the school district’s policies, whether the administrators’ actions were adequately reasonable and necessary to avoid substantial disruptions, as required by Supreme Court holdings on student free speech, remains open to further argument. Judge Reinhard appeared to find alleged statements by the Principal and Assistant Principal during the protests particularly concerning.

This case emphasizes the importance of maintaining personal neutrality during student political activities, and the value of having a practical plan of action in advance of such events.

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