In February, Heidi Webb, a ninth- grader at Montclair High School in San Bernadino County, Calif., started distributing leaflets and brochures between classes as well as outside the building before and after school. Her sixth-period teacher told her to cease and desist. She asked why. He told her it was illegal. Heidi Webb asked what law she had broken. He said he'd get back to her.
The student had been handing out literature that surely fits the Supreme Court's definition of the "uninhibited, robust" public discourse that is the American way. Heidi Webb is against abortion, and one of her leaflets said, "Killing the innocent is . . . a barbarous approach to problem-solving. Its effects on society are no less deadly than its effects on the unborn child."
The next day, the principal confronted Heidi Webb in the school parking lot and ordered her to stop handing out her literature. If she did not stop, she would be expelled for "non-compliance with authority figures." When her parents called the superintendent of the joint high school district, it was his considered judgment that because of the pamphlets' controversial subject matter, they had no place at school. They should be distributed at a church, on a public sidewalk or at a teen-age discoth Heidi did not obey his orders, the superintendent added, the police would be called.
One day in March, during the lunch break, while Heidi was giving out pamphlets to students, who had asked for them, the vice principal grabbed the rest of the papers from her, reprimanded the student in front of her schoolmates and marched her to the principal's office. That educator, Horace Jackson, suspended Heidi for two days.
On the "Parent Notification of Suspension" form, the principal explained his action by saying that the young woman had already been warned by him that "the pro-life materials she wanted to distribute were inappropriate, offensive and inflammatory."
Until that day, Heidi Webb had never been disciplined in any way during her school career. However, the shade of Tom Paine might well have applauded her first suspension.
When she returned to school, Heidi Webb kept on distributing the pamphlets because no one -- aside from using such adjectives as "inappropriate" and "inflammatory" -- had told her what law she was breaking. This time she was suspended for four days, and her principal threatened to expel her for the rest of the school year if she persisted in her defiant belief that a lonely student pamphleteer has rights.
Her parents contacted The Rutherford Institute, a skillful and aggressive Christian Legal Defense group based in Northern Virginia. One of its attorneys, Larry Crain, filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. He is asking that no further disciplinary measures be taken against Heidi for exercising her First Amendment rights and that the suspensions be removed from her record. There's also a claim for $100,000 in compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages.
A lawyer for the school district, Dan Haueter, told a San Bernadino County paper, The Daily Report, that he thought the suit ought to be dropped. After all, school officials, having finally asked Haueter for legal advice, had reinstated Heidi Webb. And the principal, Horace Jackson, even wrote her an apology for having suspended her.
Heidi, however, wants more than a piece of paper from a penitent principal. "I want to be able to set a precedent," she says. "I don't want them to be able to be sorry and forget about it. That won't do any good."
Her lawyer, Larry Crain, agrees. "A pretrial settlement is possible," he told me. "But there will have to be some sort of consent order to make sure this kind of thing doesn't happen again. And that consent order has to be worded strongly enough so that if officials in the school district break it, they can be brought up on contempt of court."
Crain also expects that a settlement will require the school district to set up workshops on student rights as a regular part of fall orientation sessions for the students. Included in that long- delayed education would be written materials for the kids to study in dawning wonder as they find their place in the Constitution.
I asked Crain why he was demanding Bill of Rights workshops only for students. Judging from what happened to Heidi Webb, administrators and teachers would seem to need those remedial courses at least as badly as the kids. Crain said that seemed like a pretty logical idea.