An anti-abortion student group in Roswell, New Mexico thought it would be a good idea to pass out hundreds of small rubber replicas of fetuses to students at two high schools. As it turns out, this was not such a good idea:
Both schools experienced doll-related disruptions that day. Many students pulled the dolls apart, tearing the heads off and using them as rubber balls or sticking them on pencil tops. Others threw dolls and doll parts at the “popcorn” ceilings so they became stuck. Dolls were used to plug toilets. Several students covered the dolls in hand sanitizer and lit them on fire. One or more male students removed the dolls’ heads, inverted the bodies to make them resemble penises, and hung them on the outside of their pants’ zippers.
Teachers at both schools complained that students’ preoccupation with the dolls disrupted classroom instruction. While teachers were trying to instruct, students threw dolls and doll heads across classrooms, at one another, and into wastebaskets. Some teachers said the disruptions took eight to 10 minutes each class period, and others said their teaching plans were derailed entirely. An honors freshman English class canceled a scheduled test because students had become engaged in name calling and insults over the topic of abortion. A Roswell security officer described the day as “a disaster” because of the dolls
So rubber fetuses legitimately disrupted these schools’ learning environments, and the school administration had a way of shutting that whole thing down. After school officials ordered the student groups to stop distributing the fetuses, several students involved in the groups sued the school, claiming they had a First Amendment right to distribute these rubber toilet-cloggers to their fellow students.
On Monday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit disagreed. As the unanimous court explained, a school may limit student speech when it reasonably forecasts such speech would “’would materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in operation of the school,’ or ‘impinge upon the rights of other students.’” In this case, school officials didn’t just forecast substantial disruption from the rubber fetuses, they watched it unfold.
As the court emphasized, it would have been unconstitutional for the school to outright forbid discussion of abortion, so long as that discussion was carried on in a non-disruptive way.