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ACLU-WA's Work for Student Rights

January 1, 1998

Freedom of Speech

  • In 1995 senior Paul Kim of Newport High School in Bellevue was disciplined after he created a World Wide Web home page which parodied his school and included links to other Internet sites with sexually explicit material. Kim created the parody on his home computer on his own time. Without informing Kim, Newport's principal rescinded the school's endorsement of him as a National Merit Scholarship candidate and also informed colleges to which he had applied of this action. The ACLU-W negotiated an out-of-court settlement by which the Bellevue School District paid Kim $2,000 (the amount he would have received if chosen for the scholarship), issued a statement acknowledging that it had violated Kim's rights, and contacted the National Merit Scholarship Corporation which agreed to reinstate Kim as a Merit finalist.
  • In 1995 editor Stacey Burns of Mountlake Terrace High School's newspaper, The Hawkeye, resisted the Snohomish County prosecutor's demand that she turn over to the police photographs of a melee at the school taken by Hawkeye staff members. The ACLU-W represented Burns, defending her right as a journalist to retain materials gathered in the course of reporting unless these are essential to a police investigation and there are no other avenues of obtaining information. This legal standard was not met, as there were numerous eyewitnesses to the fight. A Superior Court judge ruled that Burns had to comply with a subpoena to turn over the photos, but the prosecutor later dropped the matter.
  • In 1994 the ACLU-W represented a junior at Tumwater High School in Thurston County who was prohibited from distributing fliers at school concerning the suspension of a teacher. When the vice-principal saw the student distributing the fliers, he confiscated them and would not return them to the student or his parents. After the ACLU-W contacted the District, the school board agreed to adopt a student speech policy which does not require students to seek approval from school staff before distributing material; the policy subjects such distribution only to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions.
  • In 1992 school officials at Evergreen High School in south King County suspended student Karl Kearney for distributing his own newspaper to other students at school. His paper, the Subterrestrial, used satire to comment on topical issues and criticize school authorities. The ACLU-W filed a lawsuit to defend his First Amendment rights. In an out-of-court settlement, the District agreed to revise its policies to make clear that students have the right to express their opinions in writing and distribute their writings to other students.
  • In 1983 five students at Lindbergh High School in Renton were punished for circulating their own newspaper on campus. The students had written reprimands placed in their school files for distributing Bad Astra, a four-page newspaper critical of school administrators and policies. The ACLU-W filled a lawsuit challenging the school's regulation requiring that the school officials must review and approve student materials prior to distribution. In 1988 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the policy was overbroad and said administrators could not regulate the content of unofficial student publications because of unsubstantiated fears of disruption or fear of embarrassment. The reprimands were removed from the students' files.
  • In 1983 the ACLU-W represented student Matt Fraser of Bethel High School who delivered a speech for a student government candidate which included sexual double entendres. Finding the speech inappropriate and offensive, school authorities imposed a three-day suspension and barred Fraser from speaking at graduation, an honor which fellow students had voted for him. A federal district court judge ordered the suspension set aside since the speech was not disruptive, and Fraser spoke at graduation on the right of free speech. The U.S. Supreme Court later reversed the decision, ruling that school officials have the right to regulate student speech to teach "appropriate" forms of expression.

Freedom of Conscience

  • In 1996 a South Kitsap High School student who was suspended for refusing to remove his baseball cap during the Pledge of Allegiance got back in school with the help of the ACLU-W. The student was told that the removal of his baseball cap during the Pledge of Allegiance was required by state law. The ACLU-W contacted the school and argued that the student should be immediately reinstated since students can only be required to be non-disruptive during the Pledge of Allegiance; we informed school administrators that requiring a student to stand or remove his cap is tantamount to forced speech. The school agreed to reinstate the student, and the principal apologized to his mother and him for the unjustified suspension. The suspension was expunged from the student's school record.


  • In 1997 the ACLU-W vigorously opposed efforts to institute programs of suspicionless urine testing for high school students in Northshore and Blaine School Districts. In letters to district officials, the ACLU-W asserted that requiring public school students to submit urine samples without suspicion that they are using drugs is demeaning and violates constitutional rights, and that such programs would bring an ACLU-W legal challenge based on privacy protections in the Washington State Constitution. The districts dropped the urine testing proposals in favor of pursuing other ways to deal with concerns about drug use.
  • In 1994 the ACLU-W represented 15 students from Liberty High School in Issaquah School District who were strip-searched by school administrators after a student reported $100 missing. In a settlement agreement, each student received $3,000 to $4,000, the District agreed to revise its written search policies to make specific reference to the illegality of strip searches, an article on student rights was published in the school newspaper, and all District parents received a copy of the new search policy.
  • In 1994 the ACLU-W represented a student at Voyager Middle School in Mukilteo who was strip-searched after a teacher thought she saw the girl put something suspicious in her pants pocket. The teacher emptied the student's pockets and turned up some cigarette rolling papers along with what she thought were particles of marijuana. An administrator ordered a strip search of the student, and no drugs were found. In a settlement the student received $7,500, and the District agreed to adopt an unambiguous policy forbidding strip searches which would be included in the Student Rights handbook. The revised policy was sent to all District staff and publicized with a notice in each middle and high school newspaper.
  • In 1993 a fifth-grade male student in Seattle was strip-searched by his female teacher who thought he had stolen $5 from another student. No money was found on the student. In a settlement negotiated by the ACLU-W, the school paid the student $7,000 in damages and revised the Student Rights handbook to include specific language about strip searches. In addition, the District sent memos to all teachers explaining that student strip searches are illegal under all circumstances.
  • In 1982 school officials prevented Adam Kuehn, a student at Hazen High School in south King County, from traveling to Canada with his school band when he refused to let them inspect his luggage in advance. The authorities wanted to search for alcohol, which had been a problem on previous trips. In a case with the ACLU-W representing Kuehn, the State Supreme Court ruled that the federal and state constitutions restrict searches unless there are reasonable grounds to believe that a student is involved in illegal activities.


  • In 1970 the ACLU-W represented Rocky Nelson, a student suspended from Mossyrock High School because administrators claimed his long hair was hazardous in an Agricultural Mechanics class. A Lewis County Superior Court judge ruled the suspension illegal and ordered Nelson readmitted, providing he wore a safety device in the class.
  • In 1970, Maryanne Stroud of Lakes High School in Tacoma was suspended for wearing pants to school. The ACLU-W filed a lawsuit contending the school's dress code violated the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment since boys were allowed to wear pants to class. Before the case reached court, the school adopted a new dress code allowing female students to wear pants and slacks.
  • In 1966 eighth-grade student Tom Poll was suspended from class in Northshore School District in King County for violating the school's standards for good grooming by having hair which touched his eyebrows. The suspension came a day before the 13-year-old's scheduled induction into the Honor Society. The ACLU-W obtained a restraining order, and Poll - accompanied by his parents and attorneys with a court order - took part in the induction ceremony. Though the challenge to the hair length regulation lost in King County Superior Court, so many students grew their hair long over the summer that officials were unable to enforce the regulation next fall.


  • In 1988 the ACLU-W assisted a junior at Davis High School in Yakima when she was suspended from the cheerleading squad after the school administration learned that she was living with an 18-year-old male. School administrators considered her living arrangement to be "undesirable behavior." The student chose this living arrangement as an alternative to a home where she claims a neglectful parent did not provide adequate food or heat. The school agreed to allow the student to try out for cheerleading the following year.
  • In 1988 the ACLU-W represented a sixth-grade student at Eisenhower Middle School in Everett to challenge a policy which required students to shower after gym class. Due to religious upbringing the student was uncomfortable with undressing and showering in a communal setting with no privacy. The ACLU-W persuaded the District to revise its policy to make showering after gym optional.

Equal Treatment

  • In 1997 the ACLU-W sued Kent School District after school officials failed to enforce district anti-harassment policies to prevent the harassment of a gay student. The suit was brought on behalf of Kentwood High School graduate Mark Iversen, who suffered several years of verbal and physical harassment in Kent schools because of his sexual orientation, culminating in an assault by at least eight classmates who yelled "faggot" and "queer" as they struck him. Iversen and his mother had repeatedly asked school officials for help to stop the abuse. The suit seeks to have the school district adopt and enforce anti-harassment policies that explicitly protect students from persecution based on their sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation.
  • In 1997 the ACLU-W assisted a middle school girl in Grant County who was not allowed to play on the boys' baseball team. Her school offered only softball teams for girls, while boys got to play hardball. She was allowed to practice with the boys' baseball team but was kicked off prior to the season's first game. The school followed the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) rule that a female student not be allowed to play on a boys' baseball team if her school offers girls' softball. The student's mother filed a complaint with the state Human Rights Commission and the WIAA. After the ACLU-W spoke with the WIAA about the inequity of the policy, the organization agreed to revise its policy to allow girls to play on baseball teams with boys in games between schools if baseball is not offered as a girls' sport.
  • In 1973 sisters Carole and Delores Darrin turned out for the football team at Wishkah Valley High School, a small school in Grays Harbor County which sometimes had a shortage of boys for the team. Just before the season started, the Washington Interscholastic Athletic Association forbade the girls from participating because of a rule against males and females playing contact sports together. The ACLU-W sued the Association for sex discrimination, and in 1975 the State Supreme Court ruled that varsity athletic programs in public schools must be open to female students. The girls never played in a varsity game, though: By then Carole was in college, and Delores, having sat out two seasons, was no longer interested in playing football.

Separation of Religion and Government

  • In 1991 the ACLU-W successfully sued Yelm School District on behalf of a student who objected to a school-sponsored prayer planned for her graduation ceremony. A Thurston Superior Court judge found that the Washington State Constitution clearly bars government sponsorship of religious exercises. Since then, the ACLU-W has persuaded many schools and school districts throughout the state not to include prayers at graduation ceremonies. The ACLU-W has pointed out that keeping school officials out of the business of sponsoring or endorsing religious activities is the best guarantee that all public school students have religious freedom -- the right to practice the religion of their choice or no religion at all.
  • In 1986 the Bremerton School District in Kitsap County invited a former rock musician to speak at an assembly about how rock and roll led him to Satan worship and how belief in God turned around his life. The ACLU contacted the District to point out that having school-sponsored religious speakers violated the separation of church and state. The District agreed to adopt guidelines for choosing assembly speakers that would prevent such violations in the future.