Protect First Amendment Rights, Prevent Public Relations Nightmare

Issue: Bible-ripping incident
Action: Preemptive opinion letter
Outcome: Lawsuit prevented

A speech given by a local high school student in an English class became a source of national news. The teacher asked students to select a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, and describe how the quote related to the student personally while using a visual aid. In this case, the student used his speech to attack religious faith in general, and the Bible in particular. His visual aid was a Bible, which he proceeded to rip up, while he referred to other students in the class as “a bunch of superstitious, simple-minded ignoramuses.”

Other students in the class were understandably upset, and complaints were made to the administrative staff of the School District of Janesville.  The story hit the front page of the Janesville Gazette, and was picked up by blogs and news media in other parts of the United States.

School District lead attorney David Moore of Nowlan was contacted shortly after the incident occurred. Administration discussed with Moore the legal repercussions of the incident, which raised important questions of First Amendment rights as well as the responsibility of the District to its students. In anticipation of the media fallout resulting from the incident, Administration and Moore agreed that Moore would prepare a comprehensive opinion letter addressing the issues raised as a result of the student’s speech, and would release the letter to the media if necessary to address media concerns.

The letter was released, and was quoted at length on the front page of the Janesville Gazette, and was also picked up by other media. Later, the Gazette published an editorial, complimenting the District on its handling of the incident. The matter was resolved with little negative media for the District and no lawsuit. The pre-emptive action of the District, in consultation with its lawyer, resolved a problem before it became a much bigger problem.