Court OKs school's censorship of 'No Nazis' patch

NEW HAMPSHIRE -- A district court ruled last week that high school administrators did not violate a student's First Amendment rights when they suspended him for wearing a ''No Nazis'' patch.

Paul Hendrickson, a senior at Kingswood Regional High School in Wolfeboro, first wore the patch to school in March 2005. The patch featured a swastika with a line drawn through it.

''This kid's speech was purely political speech,'' said Stephen Borofsky, Hendrickson's attorney. ''It said, 'I do not like what Nazis stand for.' For them to censor him and say, 'No you can't do that,' is wrong.''

John Robertson, Governor Wentworth School District Superintendent, said Hendrickson's suspension came after months of tension between two groups of students at Kingswood.

The two groups were generally known as the ''gay students,'' of which Hendrickson is a member, and the ''homophobes'' or ''rednecks,'' according to the court decision.

The rival groups spent the 2004-05 school year taunting each other and making threats. There was also an indication that members of the ''redneck'' group were interested in Adolph Hitler and occasionally greeted the ''gay students'' with renditions of the Nazi salute, ''Seig Heil,'' according to the decision.

Hendrickson told the New Hampshire Union Leader, a newspaper in Manchester, that when he wore the patch that spring, it had been months since there was trouble between the groups.

Robertson said Hendrickson's wearing of the patch ''ignited it all over again.''

Fearing escalated hostility or even school violence, administrators asked Hendrickson several times to remove the patch. When he refused and invoked his First Amendment rights to wear the patch, he was suspended, according to the decision.

''The emotions were stressed to the point of breaking,'' Robertson said of the tension between the groups, although he said there was never any physical violence.

Robertson said he was pleased with the court's decision, and that he was happy to ''bring the matter to resolution.''

''Our first duty is to the safety of youngsters,'' he said. ''We are all advocates of First Amendment rights. Part of the school's duty is to teach that, but not stifle it.''

He said suspending Hendrickson did not stifle his First Amendment rights; it was a ''safety issue.''

Borofsky, Hendrickson's attorney, said he disagreed with Robertson's claims.

''Just because there's tension in the school, that doesn't mean you do away with the First Amendment,'' he said. ''The First Amendment has to live with the tension, and it's the administration's responsibility to see that it does.''

Hendrickson was also sent home in May when he returned to school wearing a patch that said, ''Censored for Now.'' Eventually, administrators allowed him to wear the substitute patch.

The decision said Hendrickson's explanation of the meaning of the patch -- that it was a symbol of tolerance -- was ''not-so-plausible.''

''The patch essentially said to the redneck group, albeit symbolically, 'You are Nazis and I am opposed to your being in this school,''' the decision said.

The court based its decision on Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the landmark 1969 Supreme Court case that recognized the First Amendment protections of high school students.

Under Tinker, student expression is constitutionally protected unless it will result in an invasion of other students' rights or will materially disrupt normal school activities.

The decision said Kingswood administrators were reasonable in their fears that allowing Hendrickson to wear the patch would likely have caused a ''substantial interference'' with school activities.

Additionally, the decision said that because high school administrators deal with students under the age of 18, ''teachers and administrators are obligated not only to educate, but also to protect public school students from harm.''

''Public schools are not traditional public forums, like the town square or public sidewalk,'' the decision said.

Borofsky said he was surprised by the decision, and said that while First Amendment protection for free expression in high schools is ''not as sweeping as it is on the street corner,'' it is still substantial.

He said Hendrickson's case bears a similarity to a 2002 case heard by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In that case,

Sypniewski v. Warren Hills Regional Board of Education, a split court ruled that school officials at a New Jersey high school probably violated the First Amendment rights of a student when they suspended him for wearing t-shirts with ''redneck'' slogans and Confederate flags.

The Sypniewski case, Borfosky said, effectively explored the connection between school censorship of student speech and the likelihood of ''substantial disruption.''

Borofsky said the Hendrickson family reviewed the ruling over the weekend and has not yet decided whether to appeal the decision to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

''I'm hoping they'll say yes,'' he said.

Kingswood Regional High School, New Hampshire, news