Bible incident draws concerns
Kyle Geissler talks with Janesville Gazette reporter Frank Schultz about a free speech debate at Parker High School.
JANESVILLE A Parker High School student tore pages from a Bible in class earlier this month, raising constitutional and ethical issues for school officials and his classmates.
Some students were upset, while others rallied to the cause of free speech.
The student was suspended, his mother said. She was told he couldn’t return to school until he had undergone a psychological evaluation. He was out of school for a week.
“They wanted to make sure he was safe,” the mother said, but she believes he was never a threat to anyone.
In the wake of the suspension, three students wore T-shirts with words supporting the student’s free speech rights.
Parker officials had the three remove the shirts because they could have caused a disruption, said Principal Dale Carlson.
One student set up an Internet conversation site to discuss the incident, and according to postings on that site, the T-shirts read: “So long as a man thinks, he is free,” “Bring (the student’s name) back” and “Those who mind do not matter, and those who matter do not mind.”
Carlson said the plea to bring the student back was the objectionable part of the T-shirts’ message.
Officials believed it was likely that the shirts’ reference to the Bible incident would have caused a disruption “with other students that were involved in this incident,” Carlson said.
Carlson would not confirm the suspension. He said his decisions in the matter were not tied specifically to the ripping of the Bible pages and that other circumstances played into the decision to deal with the student and his family.
The boy’s mother said her son was delivering a speech about a paper he had written for an English class. She said she was “not happy” that her son was disciplined for expressing himself in a class assignment.
The mother said she also wasn’t happy her son ripped the Bible or with the language he used.
“I’m a Christian. He was raised a Christian,” she said. “But he’s struggling right now, and that’s fine.”
Kids should be able to speak their minds, “and I don’t think they helped the matter by suspending my child,” she said.
District officials requested an opinion on the matter from their legal counsel, attorney David Moore. The Janesville Gazette obtained a copy of the opinion, which described the Bible incident.
The opinion states that a student was giving a presentation in class that involved his opposition to religion.
“In the course of doing so, he stated that no word of the Bible is true, that those who thought so were ‘idiots,’ that he would prove that persons in the class were ‘ignoramuses for believing in the Bible,’ and that the Bible was written by ‘a bunch of old Mesopotamian men with sand up their (expletive.)’
“He further said, ‘See, I can do this to the Bible and not be harmed because it is not true,’ and then proceeded to rip pages out of a Bible,” according to the document.
“Certain parents and students have understandably raised objections to the student’s conduct,” Moore’s opinion continues. “They have framed the question presented in terms of whether Parker High School will permit a student to rip up a Bible in class.”
Moore’s legal opinion is that a student can’t be disciplined only for ripping the Bible, but the school could discipline him for using offensive language and for promoting “negative stereotyping that degrades or flagrantly demeans any individual or group by negatively referring to religion.”
Students have a constitutional right to free expression Moore wrote, but that right must be balanced with the legal rights of other students “not to be denied the benefit of educational programs or discriminated against on the basis of religion.
“In addition, the school has the right to maintain order and discipline ...”
However, “the act of ripping up a Bible, in and of itself, is a form of (constitutionally) protected expression,” Moore wrote.
The student’s actions and words did not rise to the level of a crime, in the opinion of the police officer assigned to the school, Scott Wasemiller.
Wasemiller said he was involved in a meeting with the student and his parents but made no arrest or citation.