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Governor Wentworth Reg'l Sch. Dist. v. Hendrickson - 2006 DNH 31, 421 F. Supp. 2d 410

Rule:

School administrators need not wait until after incidents of disruption or violence have occurred before they step in. School authorities may lawfully, and indeed are obligated to, take reasonable measures to prevent such incidents and diffuse existing tensions. On the other hand, a mere undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to overcome a student's right to freedom of expression.

Facts:

Defendant Paul Hendrickson, Jr., was a senior at Kingswood Regional High School ("School"), a public high school in plaintiff New Hampshire's Governor Wentworth Regional School District ("District"). In the spring of 2005, the School's principal, Mr. MacMillan, told Hendrickson that he would not be allowed on school grounds while wearing a particular patch on his clothing. Hendrickson's patch consisted of a swastika on which was superimposed the international "no" symbol--a red circle with a diagonal line through it. Hendrickson, invoking his First Amendment rights, refused to remove it. School authorities, in turn, required him to leave unless and until he removed or covered it. At first, Hendrickson was sent home with parental permission. Later, after he continued to arrive at school wearing the patch and his parents declined to authorize further voluntary dismissals, Hendrickson was suspended, for so long as he insisted upon displaying the patch. Wishing to resolve the conflict and clarify its legal obligations and responsibilities, the School District filed an action in federal district court seeking a declaration of the parties' respective legal rights. The District and Hendrickson also reached an accommodation, pendente lite, under the terms of which Hendrickson was allowed to return to school and to wear a substitute patch exhibiting the slogan "Censored for Now."

Issue:

By prohibiting Hendrickson to wear the swastika patch to school, did the school officials violate the Hendrickson's First Amendment rights?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The district court held that it was reasonable and not violative of the First Amendment for school authorities to conclude, under all of the circumstances, that, if the student were permitted to wear the patch, it would likely precipitate further tension and disruptive, even potentially violent, behavior at school, which would, in turn, disrupt the educational environment and jeopardize the safety of all students, teachers, and staff.

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