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03/06/01 . Rick Green . Hartford Courant . U.S.A.
Forced Apology Sparks Debate
STONINGTON - The public punishment of a 15-year-old student has left the school system in the middle of a debate over what constitutes free speech - and what is acceptable high school behavior.
Tristan Kading is a 15-year-old vegetarian and a seasoned protester who said he saw the necessity to speak his conscience when McDonald's showed up at his school recently looking for summer employees for its restaurants.
Administrators at Stonington High School instead saw a disrespectful and disruptive student unwilling to cooperate in a special assembly on job interview skills that the McDonald's Corp. had agreed to host.
Hours after speaking out against the hamburger giant, Kading was forced to read an apology to the entire school over the public address system, in which he said he described himself, with the principal's approval, as "a bad student" that no teacher would want to have.
"They say we have a lot of rights. Then I test that, and I don't," said Kading, a blue-eyed boy with a bristle haircut who likes boats and computers and is a veteran of recent protests against deer hunting, Nike sneakers and neo-Nazi sympathizers.
"I thought the Supreme Court supported free speech and free expression in the school environment," he said. "We just studied protests in my American cultural studies class. And then this comes up." The incident occurred late last month, when sophomores were sent to a mandatory assembly in the school cafeteria. They watched a film about working in a fast-food restaurant and were given juice and cookies by company officials wearing McDonald's hats. In return for filling out job applications, Kading said, students were given coupons for free meals at McDonald's.
Kading said he was upset at being required to attend a presentation from a company he views as responsible for destroying South American rain forests in the name of raising beef for hamburgers.
A representative from the company then asked for volunteers for mock job interviews. After one student made a juvenile remark in his interview and was told to sit down, Kading volunteered.
"She asked me about myself, and I said I hate large corporations like McDonald's," he said. "She said that won't get you a job at McDonald's.
"She says `Give me back the mike,' and I said I would not want to work for a company that falsely advertises its French fries," Kading said, referring to a recent controversy in which McDonald's revealed that it uses beef flavoring in its French Fries.
Kading's comments drew loud applause and high fives from his friends, but administrators quickly removed him from the room, telling the group that he was "an embarrassment to the school." He then met with Principal Stephen Murphy. Fearful that he would be suspended, and at Murphy's urging, Kading agreed to read the apology over the intercom.
"I've never heard of this kind of punishment of putting the kid on the intercom and making him apologize," said Liz Kading, Tristan's mother. "We raised him to speak his mind. I hope we raised him to respect other people's opinion, but to have his own opinions as well."
She said the family has been flooded with support from the community since Tristan wrote a letter about the incident to the New London Day and the newspaper followed up with a story.
Thursday, after meeting with the Kadings, Murphy got on the public address system himself and said he was sorry if he "unintentionally humiliated" Kading by making him apologize so publicly. But he stood by the disciplining he imposed for the boy's behavior.
Kading - who notes that he wouldn't hesitate to speak up again - said Murphy's apology isn't enough, because the message to other students is that it's not OK to speak your mind.
Murphy did not return a call for comment. Superintendent of Schools Michael L. McKee said the real issue is how Kading chose to voice his opinion, not what he said.
"The pillories went out in New England long ago," McKee said, agreeing that it would have been better had Kading not been required to read an apology over the school's public address system for a relatively minor infraction.
But, he said, students are required to express their opinions in an appropriate fashion.
"We provide time when students are given the opportunity ... to make the kinds of statements that they feel necessary to make," he said. "We have a newspaper run by kids. We have lots of town meetings where students are given the opportunity to say what they need to say."
"School is about having kids think for themselves and making good decisions. I don't think there is any argument that the youngster was thinking for himself," McKee said. "Did he make the best decision on how to do it?"
Patrice McCarthy, deputy director and general counsel for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said the law is on the side of school administrators. If a student's behavior is viewed as disruptive, free speech can be curtailed, she said.
"In the school setting, you clearly have less rights than you do out on the town green," McCarthy said. "The courts have been fairly consistently deferring to school officials about what would be disruptive."
Thomas Mooney, author of "A Practical Guide to Connecticut School Law," said Kading's case also fails one of the key tests of protected speech.
"Any time you talk about free speech you have to ask yourself whether there has been a forum created," said Mooney, a Hartford lawyer who often represents school boards. "This was an educational exercise. School officials have the right to regulate students' speech in school-sponsored activities. It is not a forum, it is just a disruption. It's a failure to participate in an appropriate way."
But the case is about more than law, supporters of Kading say.
To the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, the issue is fundamental.
"We believe that students have First Amendment rights just like everyone else. A student giving his opinion should be able to present his opinion," CCLU lawyer Toya Graham said. "We are certainly concerned when we find out about a student who has a history of speaking out. We wonder what the motivation of the school is."
"There are a lot of concerns about children in schools and
issues of violence," Graham said. "You have to be careful
that you don't stifle all communication. We want to
encourage children to think on their own."