This month the Supreme Court declined to hear a case involving “disruption” of activities at school. Most cases on “disruption” feature a student appealing his suspension for breaking the school’s policy on bad language or risky behavior. In this one a grown man appealed a $500 fine.
In December 2014 a graduate student named Masters went to the school in Cloveport, Kentucky to see the principal, Haynes. He had asked Haynes for permission to survey the principal’s students about their knowledge of civics. When Masters arrived the principal took him into his office and denied the request. Masters cursed Haynes and, on his way out the door, invited him into the lobby for a beating. When the grad student finally left the building, the principal made sure all the school’s doors were locked.
The police arrested Masters for violating a state law prohibiting speaking or acting towards a school official in a way that disrupted school activities. Kentucky convicted Masters. He paid his $500 and filed an appeal.
The state court upheld the fine. First, it said, the law clearly warned citizens of the consequences for this kind of behavior. Second, Masters’ invitation to Haynes was not free speech. He offered a fight, and the First Amendment does not protect such a threat. Masters appealed this decision to the Supreme Court, but they refused to hear it.
Order has trumped free speech in schools since at least 1969. In that year the Supreme Court in the case of Tinker v. Des Moines established officials’ authority to limit speech in school when it collides with orderly classes and programs. This Kentucky law, and ones like it in other states, strikes the same balance. But it does so against adults, not students, and with criminal penalties, not days of suspension in the guidance counselor’s office.