Our Opinion: School abortion walkouts deserve equal free speech

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What’s good for the gun control goose is good for the pro-life gander.

That’s the principle behind a national student walkout scheduled today to protest abortion policies nearly a month after thousands of American high school students left class to demonstrate against school shootings and advocate for stricter gun laws.

Brandon Gillespie, a junior at Rocklin High School in California, proposed an anti-abortion school walkout and quickly garnered support from conservative groups nationwide. The pro-life protest was designed to closely mirror the March 14 gun violence walkout to test whether public schools would give conservative student activists the same leeway they provided supporters of liberal causes.

The March walkout was held one month after a shooter took 17 lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Schools were all over the map in their handling of the nationwide demonstration, with some promising harsh punishment for protesters and others halting classes and escorting students outside.

Gillespie’s school fell into the latter camp. Rocklin High told teachers to modify lesson plans to accommodate the walkout, chose not to punish participants and provided access to the school amphitheater, according to the Life Legal Defense Foundation. Yet Gillespie says school officials told him Rocklin wouldn’t roll out the red carpet for his pro-life protest.

Treating student demonstrators differently based on the viewpoint they’re expressing runs afoul of the First Amendment and the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. As a public school and an arm of the government, Rocklin High can’t take sides or play favorites.

“The Pro-Life Generation has every right to exercise their free speech rights in defense of pregnant and parenting students,” Kristin Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, said in a statement. “But we have found that some administrations have not embraced students who care about lives lost to abortion as they did students who cared about lives lost to gun violence. But you can’t open the door to one group of students and close it to another. Abortion has taken the lives of one-fourth of this generation, and we will remember those we’ve lost on Wednesday.”

Opponents argue that protesting abortion is far more polarizing than calling for an end to gun violence — after all, no political group or decent human being supports school shootings. But gun control advocacy was part and parcel of the Parkland walkouts. And restrictions on Second Amendment rights are certainly as controversial as restrictions on abortion rights.

Last month’s walkout included a moment of silence for school shooting victims. Today’s will mourn the unborn lost to legal abortion. Last month, students’ protest signs targeted the National Rifle Association. The pro-life walkout is taking aim at Planned Parenthood. See the parallels?

In a Monday letter to Rocklin High School Principal Davis Stewart, attorney Allison K. Aranda demands that Gillespie’s pro-life walkout receive equal treatment as last month’s Parkland walkout. If school officials crack down on participants or fail to provide the same accommodations, Aranda and her Life Legal Defense Foundation vow to “pursue all legal remedies to protect his constitutional and civil rights.”

Walkouts are planned at 10 a.m. today at a smattering of schools across the country. Folks will be tempted to fall into well-worn ideological battle lines, with conservatives supporting the movement and liberals opposing it. But there’s a deeper issue at stake.

It’s settled law that government institutions including public schools must apply viewpoint-neutral standards to their oversight of speech and expressive conduct. Endorsing one political protest and discouraging or disadvantaging another is blatantly illegal.

Even the ardently pro-choice have to admit — if they’re being intellectually honest — that Brandon Gillespie has as much right to demonstrate during school as young acolytes of David Hogg.

Schools didn’t have to jump on the Parkland protest bandwagon with both feet. Under the Supreme Court’s watershed Tinker v. Des Moines decision, students can exercise their First Amendment rights, but schools are allowed to silence speech that causes a material and substantial disruption to the educational process. Class walkouts would seem to fit the bill.

But here’s the rub: Once schools determine that leaving class for political reasons is OK, they can’t then decide which political reasons merit class time interruption and which ones don’t. Nor does it matter whether a walkout is staged for a widespread student sentiment or a controversial cause with few adherents. The First Amendment protects unpopular speech just the same.

Pro-life teenagers are teaching their teachers and principals a thing or two about the Constitution. Here’s hoping administrators are taking notes.