The ‘I agree with Wes’ mess

Does freedom of speech take a back seat to kindness, inclusion and citizenship?

Students at Reno High School posted the “I agree with Wes!” sign above.

Students at Reno High School posted the “I agree with Wes!” sign above.

Photo by Deidre Pike

What can you do with Wes? Well, you can agree with his evangelical Christian message—and wear T-shirts or post posters that express this—at the University of Nevada, Reno, and in most public high schools. But disagreeing with Wes may be a different story.

Who is Wes?

UNR engineering student Wes Watkins recently wrote a column in the Sagebrush, UNR’s student newspaper, explaining why he’s a Christian. Soon, T-shirts and posters popped up at UNR and several area high schools with the four simple words: “I agree with Wes.”

Students hoped to be questioned about the phrase by other students so that they could express their religious views. But a few students at Galena High School wanted to express different opinions.

It wasn’t that simple. Galena junior Erica Minaberry made posters that said, “I don’t agree with Wes.” In order to put the posters on the walls, she had to obtain administrative approval, so she asked Galena principal Sandra Walter to approve her posters.

Walter denied the request, citing a school rule that students are required to have an organized club with a faculty adviser and a written constitution before they are allowed to post announcements on the walls. Also, the subject matter of the poster had to relate to the beliefs of the members of the club, like the Christian club that put up the “I agree with Wes!” posters. Walter said that she based her decision on the advice of the Washoe County School District’s legal counsel, Jeff Blanck.

So Minaberry decided to start a new club. In order for the club to form, though, Minaberry was told that she would need to find an adviser, submit a constitution, develop objectives and form a budget. This could take a while, she was told.

Most clubs are required to submit those credentials before being recognized by the school, according to Washoe County School Board Policy 5133. But the policy doesn’t appear to apply to organizations started by students that are “religious, philosophical or political in purpose.”

Blanck agreed that there are differing standards for different types of clubs. He could not comment on the Galena case specifically, though, because the administrators who made the decisions were unavailable during the school district’s spring break.

Minaberry said that all students should be allowed freedom of speech in the form of posters.

“I think that the Christian club should be allowed to have their posters, but I think I should be allowed to express my views, too,” she said.

The decision by Galena’s administration appeared to fly in the face of the Equal Access Act and an U.S. Supreme Court decision. The federal Equal Access Act made it illegal for any school that receives federal funds (such as Galena) “to deny equal access or a fair opportunity to … any students who wish to conduct a meeting … on the basis of religious, political, philosophical or other content of the speech.”

The Supreme Court upheld and expanded that law in the 1990 case of Westside Community Board of Education v. Mergens. In that case, a group of students attempted to form a Christian club without a faculty adviser. The students wanted their club to be recognized by the school so that, among other things, they would be allowed to post announcements on school bulletin boards. The Supreme Court ruled that the students had the right to form a club, even without a faculty adviser. The Court also said that the Christian club should be granted the same rights and privileges as other clubs at the school.

The “Are you sure?” sign was posted at UNR by Students for Independent Thought.

Photo by Deidre Pike

The situation at Galena changed April 10, when Walter made an announcement to the student body over the P.A. system. In her speech, a copy of which was e-mailed to all Galena teachers, Walter reiterated her decision, but also decided that even the “I agree with Wes” shirts and posters had to go.

“The shirt and the posters are causing a disruption to the educational environment of the school, along with anger and resentment,” Walter said. “The WCSD policy does not allow materials to be posted that are inflammatory or pit one group against another.”

Why the shift to squelch freedom of speech?

“When asked about the sign, members [of the Christian club] debated with their schoolmates,” she wrote in the e-mail. “Angry words were exchanged, and those wearing T-shirts were taunted by comments like, ‘Wes is gay.’ Those who disagreed with the beliefs of Wes were told they would go to hell.”

No physical disturbance of any kind was reported; rather, all of the alleged problems related to students’ discussions and debates about religion. And Walter expressed concern about how the story would play in the media.

“Newspaper reporters have called seeking information about this situation and seeking a sensational story to the detriment of Galena High School students,” she wrote. “There is no sensational story here; however, if you look, you will find a fair and equitable application of the federal laws and the policies of the district as the situation changed.”

School district policy doesn’t seem to support this kind of decision. WCSD Policy 5145 states: “The undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance, or the mere desire to avoid the discomfort associated with an unpopular viewpoint, is not enough to restrain the student right to exercise free speech, press and expression.”

But WCSD attorney Blanck said the decision was justified.

“When it became invasive and that action escalated, it began flowing into the classrooms, and it became disruptive,” Blanck said. “People can still have discussions on campus, but the problem had rolled into classrooms.”

Blanck said the problems began when students approached other people, rather than waiting to be approached.

“That started the antagonism,” he said. “It became proselytizing, which went beyond the rules, and therefore was unacceptable. …You should be able to go to school and avoid it [the pro- or anti-Wes messages] if you want to.”

The United States Supreme Court wrote in its 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines: “Any word spoken, in class, in the lunchroom, or on campus that deviates from the views of another person may start an argument or cause a disturbance. But our Constitution says we must take that risk.”

Galena’s decision to censor religious—and philosophical—views on campus appears to run afoul of the Court’s statement that neither “students or teachers shed their constitutional right to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Minaberry said that it just doesn’t make sense.

“I thought it would be logical if I could express my opinions just like they were expressing theirs," she said.