Photo: Poster of the event
A student-led protest at Belmont High School will be a private affair as education officials are barring the public, town officials and the press from attending the “National School Walkout to Protest Gun Violence” event taking place on Wednesday, March 21 at 10 a.m.
“As you are aware, the public is not permitted on school grounds during this event,” said Kristen Murphy, community engagement coordinator for the district. It’s reported police will prevent traffic and people from traveling on the public access road fronting the school. Murphy noted that principals Dan Richards of Belmont High School and Michael McAllister of the Chenery Middle School will be able to speak in the subject after the event.
According to John Phelan, Belmont’s School Superintendent, only students, and staff will attend the event taking place outdoors on public space.
“[S]tudent safety is our main concern,” said Phelan in a letter responding to William Fick, the father of one of the student organizers. Phelan defended the restrictions of outsiders attendance out of “concerns regarding student safety and minimizing disruption to the education process.” The ban includes those who only wished to observe the protest and publications and broadcasters reporting on the event.
Phelan did not provide examples how observers and media outlets would constitute a safety concern or how their presence constituted a disruption of education. A week earlier thousands of schools across the US held 17-minute rallies without incident, including Belmont Day School located off Concord Avenue. The private elementary/middle school also invited the press to view the middle school students in their protest.
Last May, Belmont High students organized by then junior Barbara Joseph, held an impromptu rally against racism that circled Clay Pit Pond and ended by the flagpole at the school’s entry. Despite a large number of students attending, there was no public safety incidents.
Phelan was responding to Fick who raised constitutional issues on eliminating the public from the protest, specifically when it come to barring the press, calling that decision “unlawful” as the protest is a “newsworthy event.”
“In light of the nearly unfettered access BHS affords to local media for other purposes (sports, Promenade, performances, etc), the exclusion of media from the walkout is transparent “content discrimination” unrelated to any permissible basis to regulate the “time, place and manner” of protected speech activity,” said Fick, who is a Boston-based defense attorney who frequently works in partnership with the ACLU of Massachusetts.
While the students agreed to stay on school property to respect the Administration’s “expressed concerns for decorum and safety,” “… the purpose of the protest is not simply for students to talk to each other, which they can do all day within the walls of the school, but to make their voices heard in the community and among elected officials,” said Fick.
Fick noted to Phelan that while the public will be restricted from entering school property, the access road and sidewalk running in front of the school are public ways as is the community path around Clay Pit Pond. Fick requested the school department to inform him of the “purported legal basis for any such closing of outdoor public property.”
While Fick reminded Phelan of the Supreme Court decision, Tinker v. Des Moines, that “students do not ‘shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression at the schoolhouse gate,” Phelan stated that “Belmont recognizes” that ruling, “however, there is a well-recognized legal principle that administrators must ensure safety of all staff and students as well as minimize the disturbance to the educational process.”