Poster Problems: In Giles County, Va., The Unconstitutional Writing Is On The Wall

There’s not a public school in America that doesn’t control what goes up on its walls – and rightly so.

Back in 1999, we at Americans United got word about a Pennsylvania school district that, after being prodded by a local fundamentalist minister, decided to post the Ten Commandments in a high school.

Members of the school board knew this was unconstitutional, so they tried an end-run: They designated a certain wall a “free-speech zone” and said community groups could post “character-building” material there. Naturally, the first item posted was a Ten Commandments display donated by a local church.

The second item donated was a history of the gay rights movement. The third was about the tenets of Wicca. The fourth was a document titled “What Is a Freethinker?”

Shortly after that, the school board voted to shut down the forum. Seems it had become just a bit controversial.

Education officials in Giles County, Va., could learn a thing or two from that incident. The county schools are currently being sued over a Commandments display at Narrows High School. (The student who is suing is anonymous and is referred to as “Doe” in court documents.)

In court, the school system is being represented by the Liberty Counsel, a group run out of Liberty University in Lynchburg. Liberty Counsel’s head, Mathew Staver, certainly makes some creative arguments (in this case, creative does not equal good). In Giles County, he is asserting that the Commandments display is permissible because it’s private speech that was paid for with private money.

“Since there are no allegations that the display was placed or financed by the district, the fact that Doe 1 might be offended is not related to any action taken by the district,” Liberty Counsel asserts.

Really? So someone just walked into the high school and plastered the Ten Commandments on the wall, and the school district had nothing to do with it? Sounds perfectly plausible to me.

In fact, the school board has been grappling with this issue for months and was intimately tied up with the decision to post the Decalogue. They even voted 3-2 to allow it. And now they’re trying to say it wasn’t really their thing?

Get real. There’s not a public school in America that doesn’t control what goes up on its walls – and rightly so.

My daughter is a high school senior, and when my wife and I visit her school, we see all sorts of signs and posters. Some advertise school events, some urge kids to stay drug-free, some promote visits from college representatives, some recommend buying a yearbook, etc. All of this material is cleared by administrators to make sure it conforms to the messages the school seeks to promote: study hard, aim high, be involved in your school and so on. There is no way I could walk in with a sign, slap it up on the wall and demand that it stay.

Does Giles County really want to go down this road? If it creates an open forum in the school, my guess is it won’t be long before someone comes along with a display that the fundamentalists there don’t much like.

There is a better way: Leave the teaching of the Ten Commandments to the houses of worship of Giles County and in the hands of parents. The high school can stick to the other stuff – you know, English, math, science, etc.