US: High School students win free speech victory

Solidarity appeal forces authorities to drop ban against anti-Iraq war activists

In just over 24 hours, authorities at Kennedy High School, Minnesota, reversed a ban stopping Youth Against War and Racism student activists running an information stall in the school. This swift U-Turn is the result of an immediate solidarity campaign by student activists, who appealed to students, school workers, the local community, and to anti-war activists internationally.

Student activist, Brandon Madsen, reports on what happened in his college on 23 February:

Under pressure from the American Legion, the Bloomington (Minnesota) Public Schools Superintendent, Gary Prest, banned Kennedy student anti-war activists from setting up a counter-recruitment table on 23 February, while allowing military recruiters unfettered access to our fellow students.

We responded with a solidarity appeal, urging people to call the Bloomington Superintendent, Gary Prest, and the Principal of Kennedy, Ronald Simmons, and urge them to respect our right to free speech, and our right to set up an anti-war information table when the military recruiters come to our school.

Background information

Weeks ahead, we planned to set up an anti-war information table on 23 February, when the military recruiters were scheduled to table at Kennedy High. We had obtained permission and reserved a table. But on the morning of 22 February our Principal got a visit to his office by representatives from the American Legion. They told him that unless he stopped us from tabling, they would stop donating money to Bloomington Public Schools. Our principal also got a call from the District Superintendent, who had also met with the American Legion, and the District Superintendent also instructed him to shut down our club, Youth Against War and Racism.

This repression of our rights follows months of negotiations with our Principal to get the right to set up a table. Last December, the Bloomington School District lawyer finally gave his opinion that we had the right to set up a counter-recruitment information table when military recruiters came to Kennedy. On 8 December, the recruiters came, and our counter-recruitment tabling met with huge success. Over 230 students signed our petition against military recruiters being allowed into Kennedy High in the following days.

Our Superintendent and Principal allowed themselves to be blackmailed by the American Legion. We immediately decided to fight this suppression of our First Amendment rights.


Socialist Alternative member, Ty Moore, describes how the Kennedy students’ solidarity appeal forced the authorities to back down:

On the evening of 23 February, about 14 Kennedy students gathered to discuss how to fight back against this attack, and decided, among other things, to defy the order and set up a table anyway, whatever the consequences.

On the morning of 24 February, they gave out 300 flyers, explaining the issue to their fellow students, demanding their free speech rights, and urging students to join them at the lunch table to show support. Also, the flyer advertised an after-school teach-in/protest, and urged students to have their parents call in to the Principal and Superintendent to complain.

Also that morning, thousands of Minnesotans woke up to find in their email inboxes an appeal for solidarity, urging them to call the Principal and Superintendent. A press release was sent out, as well, explaining the attacks on students’ rights, and calling an after-school press conference.

At lunch, shortly after the students set up their table, the Principal and other administrators approached the students threatening three days suspension if they didn’t leave. When the students refused to leave, the administrators physically grabbed all their literature and told them the afternoon teach-in was (in the school cafeteria) was cancelled.

The Principal demanded they stop asking people to call his office to protest. "It’s been overwhelming," he said.

The students packed up and went to the Superintendents office across town, and had a meeting with him. By this time, it seems the Superintendent had also received many protest phone calls. He realised the students would not back down quietly, and that they were capable of mobilising community support. So, when the students talked to the Superintendent, he tried to play the whole thing down, as a big misunderstanding. He said that from now on they would have permission to run information tables when army recruiters came.

So the teach-in protest after-school turned into a teach-in/victory meeting, with around 30 students and 10 community supporters in attendance.

Alongside three speakers (Vets for Peace, Palestinian activists, and Ty Moore, from Socialist Alternative), Brandon Madsen gave a general summary of the previous two days of events, with a clear analysis of why the students had won. Many of the other students got up and said their piece as well, describing the days’ events. The main Minneapolis newspaper, two radio stations, and the Bloomington newspaper all sent reporters.

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February 2005