Topics: Teachers College, College of Communication Information and Media

September 14, 2007

Ball State will observe two events celebrating the anniversary of Constitution Day on Sept. 17.

First, J-Ideas, Ball State's student journalism and First Amendment Institute, and the Department of Journalism will conduct a panel discussion, "Beyond Bong Hits: Examining the Current Threats to Student Free Expression," at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 17 in the Art and Journalism Building, room 175. The one-hour program is open to the campus and the community.

The panel will feature Mary Beth Tinker, who has been a crusader for student free speech since her days as an Iowa junior high school student in the late 1960s. Tinker, protesting the Vietnam War, was the subject in the landmark 1969 Supreme Court decision, Tinker v. Des Moines. The decision created a precedent that student free-expression rights do not stop at the schoolhouse gate. Tinker's visit is sponsored in part by the Department of Educational Leadership.

Warren Watson, director J-Ideas, will moderate the panel, which also will include Joseph McKinney, lawyer and chairman of Ball State's Department of Educational Leadership, and Amy Sorrell, a Fort Wayne-area high school teacher and journalism adviser who fought censorship action last spring in the East Allen School District in Woodburn.

The panel will examine the state of student free speech today with a particular emphasis on the Supreme Court's June decision, Morse v. Frederick, which sets limits on student free expression when it comes to the subject of illegal drugs specifically. The case, also known as "Bong Hits 4 Jesus," has worried free-speech proponents who say that it threatens the Tinker precedent itself.

"The First Amendment remains the cornerstone of the Constitution and Bill of Rights," said Watson. "The panel will focus on how post-Tinker Supreme Court decisions have begun to erode student liberties. We'll talk about how all this represents an assault on the First Amendment rights of our students."

Court decisions Bethel v. Fraser (1986) and Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1988) earlier placed restrictions on student free speech related to vulgarity and student media. In addition, some lower courts have already begun to cite Morse v. Frederick as a justification for censoring student speech in other areas, including violence.

Sorrell, who now teaches at the Keystone School in Fort Wayne, was at the center of a firestorm about student expression last winter at the Woodlan High School east of Fort Wayne.

Sorrell, who has been teaching for eight years, was suspended for two months after allowing an op-ed piece that advocated tolerance of gays to run in the school newspaper. East Allen school officials later transferred her to another school with the stipulation that she not teach journalism. She later decided to take a job at a private school, where she is developing a student media program.

McKinney works with secondary school administrators on key points of media law. He and Watson are co-instructors of a graduate-level course on the First Amendment designed especially for principals and administrators.

In addition to the J-Ideas panel, Joseph Van Bokkelen, Indiana's newest federal judge, will discuss "The U.S. Constitution in the 21st Century" at 4 p.m. in the Art and Journalism Building, room 175.  Van Bokkelen, who serves as the U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of Indiana, previously worked in the Indiana Attorney General's Office and as the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Indiana.

Van Bokkelen's speech is sponsored by the Bowen Center for Public Affairs and the Department of Political Science, with assistance provided by the Office of Student Affairs.