A lesson in free speech

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School district concedes it was wrong to suspend student protesters

By AJ Vicens

Michelle Obama's visit to Dakota Ridge High School on Nov. 3 was memorable for many reasons. But the Benson family will recall the day mainly for their battle with the Jeffco school district over free speech.

During the election-eve appearance by the wife of Democratic candidate Barack Obama, 17-year-old junior Blake Benson and a group of friends made signs in support of Republicans John McCain and Sarah Palin, as well as signs that said "Nobama." The small group mounted their protest on the front steps of the school.

School administrators asked the group to move toward the sidewalk, an area they said was designated for protests. But three of the students, including Benson, came back and said they were not being disruptive, they had the right to express themselves, and that they would not leave.

The three students, which included Blake Benson, were taken into the school's administrative offices, given police tickets for "interference with staff, faculty or students at an educational facility," and slapped with a one-day suspension.

Benson's mother, Regan Benson, fought the suspension and the ticket, and Jeffco Public Schools has since conceded that restricting the protesters was wrong.

"What really happened is that the kids had a right to be there, and a right to protest and to share their views," said Holly Anderson, the district's community superintendent.

Anderson said the students' suspensions have been rescinded, and that the district is asking the sheriff's office to withdraw the court summonses it handed out that day. Anderson said that school administrators were being "proactive" and made the wrong decisions, and that the situation will serve as a learning opportunity for the district.

She added that the students were ticketed and suspended for not obeying the administrators' orders, not because of their political views.

Mike Norton, a former U.S. attorney, took the Bensons' case late last week.

"It's frankly an outrage," Norton said Nov. 7. "A public school sponsored a rally for one political candidate and excluded people who were peacefully present and did not engage in any illegal behavior."

Dr. Jim Jelinek, Dakota Ridge's principal, would not comment for this story. But in an e-mail exchange with Regan Benson, in which Regan Benson did not hide her disapproval of the rally and the experience of her son, he explained the rationale behind the suspensions.

"If your son was protesting with political implications and asked leave (sic) campus at the end of the school, then he should have left school grounds as directed," Jelinek said in an e-mail to Benson on Nov. 3. "Arguing repeatedly with school campus supervisors, school administration and law enforcement was incredibly short-sighted on the part of your son."

Jelinek further stated that the Obama rally was a "wonderful opportunity for our school community to witness a part of history and bring authenticity to our student experience with politics — regardless of political ideology." He told Regan Benson that her "sarcasm and negative attitude" were not surprising to him because it was "traditionally habit" for her, and that he wouldn't talk to her unless she was more civil.

Regan Benson filed a formal complaint against Jeffco sheriff's Deputy Greg Everhart for allegedly using abusive language toward her son and the other students while he was detaining them.

Jacki Kelley, spokeswoman for the sheriff's office, confirmed the complaint but said there was nothing in the deputy's report about abusive language. She added that the deputy was acting at the request of the school district.

Lynn Setzer, Jeffco Public Schools spokeswoman, said the actions of school administrators "had nothing to do with the protest" but rather stemmed from the fact that a separate area had been established for protesters. She added that it's a school-by-school decision as to how to control protests, and Jelinek had the authority to establish a designated protest area.

"School officials do have the right to ask students to conduct themselves in a certain way," Setzer said. "They felt they were kind of harassing people waiting in line, and that's why they asked them to go to the protest area."

Setzer wouldn't comment on the suspensions or any administrative actions taken against the students.

"The Obama campaign rented the school space, and it becomes their event," Setzer said. "It's just as we would have done for the McCain campaign or any other cause."

Blake Benson said in an e-mail message that he supported McCain and felt like the Obama event misrepresented his school.

"I felt like this event was making our school look like an all-Democratic school," Blake Benson said. "Not everyone had to have the same beliefs as the Democrats. Our administration was trying to push the Democratic Party in our face. I felt that, during this incident, Jeffco schools and the sheriff's department stripped me of my rights as an American citizen."

Regan Benson also offered an e-mail statement.

"My family and many other families in the Jeffco district are constantly battling with our school for answers we should be given," Regan Benson said. "We are parents and taxpayers. I'm fed up with the administration making excuses for their behavior, silencing parents, and expecting support from me when they feel they want it."

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.