A group of conservative students wants to start a Turning Point USA (TPUSA) chapter at Johnston High School.
The Johnston School Board on Monday decided to delay a vote on recognizing TPUSA until the students involved provided TPUSA’s constitution and bylaws.
TPUSA works with high school and college students “to spread the principles of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and limited government.”
Several Johnston parents have urged the school board not to recognize the group because they deem TPUSA a “hate group.”
While TPUSA and its founder, Charlie Kirk, have taken positions and have made statements that we disagree with, the school board would violate federal law should it deny recognizing the chapter.
The Equal Access Act passed by Congress and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1984 protects student-led groups on secondary school campuses.
The law is quite clear. It states, “It shall be unlawful for any public secondary school which receives Federal financial assistance and which has a limited open forum to deny equal access or a fair opportunity to, or discriminate against, any students who wish to conduct a meeting within that limited open forum on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.”
The law defines “limited open forum” when a secondary school “grants an offering to or opportunity for one or more noncurriculum related student groups to meet on school premises during noninstructional time.”
Johnston High School recognizes several student groups, including some that would indeed be deemed controversial by some parents and students. For instance, Johnston High School recognizes the Gay-Straight Alliance, a group, according to the national organization website, that is a vehicle “for deep social change related to racial, gender, and educational justice.” They also have a March for Our Lives chapter, which wants to end gun violence through strict gun control measures.
The Equal Access Act protects those groups as well.
Some criteria have to be applied:
- Meetings have to be voluntary and student-initiated.
- There is no sponsorship of the meeting by the school, the government, or its agents or employees.
- With religious groups, staff present are only present in a non-participatory capacity.
- The meeting does not materially and substantially interfere with the orderly conduct of educational activities within the school.
- Nonschool persons may not direct, conduct, control, or regularly attend activities of student groups.
The law also states that nothing in the law “shall be construed to limit the authority of the school, its agents or employees, to maintain order and discipline on school premises, to protect the well-being of students and faculty, and to assure that attendance of students at meetings is voluntary.”
However, denying a group that has never met isn’t maintaining order and discipline and a group’s existence. At the same time, we do not endorse TPUSA; it is not a “hate group” in any meaningful, rational sense of the term, so its very existence shouldn’t harm the well-being of students and faculty any more than the existence of a Gay-Straight Alliance harms the well-being of students that disagree with that agenda.
Johnston recognizes student-led groups, and it receives federal funding. Therefore, denying this group would be illegal.
Not only that, but it would be an unconstitutional act. Both the U.S. Constitution and Iowa Constitution protect the freedom of speech and the freedom of assembly.
Student speech and political activity can’t be infringed on because it is deemed “controversial” and the Supreme Court ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District that students don’t shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate.
Parents and students who want to block this group and the school board members who may align with them desperately need a refresher Civics 101 course.