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Did a New York School Unconstitutionally Censor One Of Its Own Students?


“I thought my original speech was really gonna win. I was very confident in it.”

Kameron Slade

New York 5th Grader Kameron Slade had a conundrum - he was slated to give a speech to his whole school assembly, and didn't have a topic. Evidently, he decided to go with a speech on a topic that was close to his heart - specifically, same sex marriage.

Wait, what?

Yes, apparently fifth graders in New York care about same sex marriage enough to give speeches about it. And no, this isn't a political thing. Same sex marriage is legal in the state of New York, and as far as reports indicate, the speech wasn't meant to deal extensively with the legal problems facing same sex couples across the nation. Kameron Slade evidently just really, really cares about this subject, despite his young age.

Fair enough. Precociousness in children isn't a problem, and besides, the speech is strictly about marriage, with the sexual component removed. Basically, a child is talking about a subject that many would see as beyond his years, but which he apparently feels confident enough to discuss. No big deal, let's all go home, right?

Wrong. Because the principal of Kameron's public school decided, for undisclosed reasons, that this speech wasn't "appropriate" and forced him to deliver a speech on animal cruelty instead. From CBS New York:

The school’s principal barred Kameron Slade from delivering the speech in front of a school-wide assembly, saying it was inappropriate. Instead, he delivered a speech Friday about animal cruelty.

“I thought my original speech was really gonna win. I was very confident in it,” Slade told CBS 2′s Tony Aiello.

Now, after a minor outcry, the same principal is allowing Kameron to give his speech in a smaller, separate assembly, and parents will be alerted as to the content of the speech so they can pull their kids out if they wish:

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott says a fifth grade student at P.S. 195 in Queens will be allowed to give a speech about same-sex marriage after all.[...]

Walcott said Friday that Principal Beryl Bailey will allow the speech to go ahead in front of a special assembly of fifth graders on Monday.

“This extra day will give her the ability to reach out to those parents to make them aware of the content of the speech because we’re talking about an elementary school,” Walcott said. “She wants to be responsible in making sure that people have a clear understanding of what the speech is about.”

CBS New York also brings this video report on the incident:

Now, some of you may still be wondering why this matter got news coverage. The answer is that, even with the separate assembly compromise, many free speech advocates are crying foul, claiming that the 11-year-old Slade's free speech rights were violated, and that the new compromise amounts to a "separate but equal" arrangement. Among these are the New York Civil Liberties Union and New York City Councilman Daniel Dromm. CBS quotes them as follows:

“Separate but equal does not work,” Dromm said.[...]

The New York Civil Liberties Union told CBS 2′s Aiello that Slade’s First Amendment rights were violated.

“At a time when Marriage Equality is the law of our state, we should not stifle students from engaging this issue on their own terms and in their own ways,” said Public Advocate Bill de Blasio. “Kameron’s speech is a heartfelt expression of understanding that deserves to be commended. He has shown far more maturity than the adults in his school. His voice should be heard, not sidelined.”

Are these complaints legally correct? Quite possibly. Supreme Court precedent is ambiguous regarding students' free speech rights, but generally, three standards have to be met before a student's form of speech can be censored constitutionally. Specifically, the speech has to be A) Disruptive, B) Offensive to prevailing community standards and C) Contrary to the educational purpose of the school. However, there's no evidence that Slade's speech would have been disruptive, his speech deals with a subject which is perfectly legal (IE probably not offensive to prevailing community standards), and the school's purpose has nothing to do with same sex marriage.

Whether Slade will sue over his treatment is another subject altogether.

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