Lawsuit Claims School Discriminated Against Pro-Gun Students

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on August 03, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In the wake of the Parkland, Florida school shooting earlier this year, students nationwide staged walkouts to protest gun violence and support stricter gun control laws. Students at Hononegah Community High School in Rockton, Illinois walked out on March 14, 2018, but not all of those students were on the same side of the gun control debate.

Madison Oster, a junior at Hononegah with "sincerely-held beliefs regarding the individual right of the Second Amendment, firearms policies in general, and about the optimal way to protect schools in the event of a violent attack" marched that day carrying signs that read "Pro Life, Pro God, Pro Gun" and "Protect Us, Police For All Schools." And a lawsuit filed this week claims the school "systematically segregated, suppressed, and ostracized" the viewpoints expressed by Oster a similarly-minded students.

Gun Control and Free Speech Control

While school officials approved Oster's signs and she was allowed to walk out of school like her classmates, Oster and approximately five other pro-gun rights students "were made to wait until all of their classmates holding the opposing viewpoint had exited" first, and initially were not allowed on the football field with the estimated 75 students calling for stricter gun control. An assistant principal allegedly "suggested that they would disturb the peace and start a fight." And while the counter-protestors were eventually moved closer to the main protests, they remained "separated from all other participants just inside the fence, out of everyone else's sight or hearing. Then, according to Oster's lawsuit:

At the end of the walkout, [Assistant Executive Principal] Dougherty subjected Madison's group to the taunts of their classmates by holding them aside while all of the other students walked past them into the building. One student yelled at Madison to kill herself. Another student took pictures of Madison's group, one of which reportedly became an online meme and method of ridicule among the other HCHS students.

Student Speech and Serious Constitutional Concerns

The American Civil Liberties Union also criticized school officials after the protest, saying their treatment of the pro-gun students "raises serious constitutional concerns." Under Supreme Court precedent, schools may only limit student speech when "necessary to avoid material and substantial interference with schoolwork or discipline." "In this instance," according to Illinois ACLU staff attorney Rebecca K. Glenberg, "there was no apparent reason to believe that substantial disruption would occur if pro-gun students were given an equal opportunity for expression during the walkout."

Oster is seeking a ruling that Hononegah violated her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, along with monetary damages and court costs and expenses.

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