Southern California School Sued for Silencing Student on Illegal Immigration

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The law firm of Lively, Ackerman & Cowles has sued California's Jurupa Unified School District for silencing a student who attempted to speak out on the issue of illegal immigration in a peaceful way.

The public interest firm of Lively, Ackerman & Cowles (http://www.LivelyAckerman.com) filed suit on behalf of Jurupa Valley High School student Joshua Denhalter late last week. The First Amendment suit alleges that the public high school has intentionally interfered with his right to speak out on the issue of illegal immigration. Case Number RIC450811 was filed in Riverside County Superior Court.

Mr. Denhalter alleges that on March 27, 2006, dozens of high school students, mostly of Mexican-American descent, illegally walked out of school in protest of legislation that was being proposed by the U.S. Congress (HR4437) concerning illegal immigration. He was not one of these students and chose to act lawfully.

Instead of illegally walking out of school and being truant, Denhalter chose to organize a legitimate and lawful counter-protest/assembly during the lunch hour on or about March 30, 2006. The peaceable assembly was to take place across from the school on a public sidewalk (i.e., a traditional public forum).

The peaceable assembly would not have disrupted school activities because Jurupa Valley High School has an “open lunch” period. This means that students are free to come and go during this time. As such, any student could have “walked out” during the lunch to attend the assembly and there would be no disruption or violation of truancy laws.

On the morning of March 30, 2006, Denhalter began handing out flyers for his event. That same morning, around 7:30 AM, he was approached by school officials and told that he could not hand out flyers advertising his First Amendment protected activities. He refused to give up his right to pass out handbills/flyers. As a result of his refusal to give up his constitutional rights, Denhalter was suspended for “handing out flyers (before school) advocating the disruption of school activities”. However, the school did not punish the dozens of students who walked out in violation of the law several days before.

Furthermore, between March 27 and March 30, 2006, the school allowed MECHA to sponsor an on-campus rally in opposition to HR4437. Denhalter asked for permission to sponsor a similar counter-rally on campus but was flatly denied by the school district's board.

Finally, just the week before filing of this complaint, on May 25, 2006, the school prohibited Denhalter from wearing a “Save Our State” t-shirt by telling him that he needed to turn the shirt inside out and not ever wear it again. The content of the political speech set forth on the shirt was the sole basis for this censorship and prior restraint of Denhalter’s rights. He seeks a restraining order allowing him to express himself freely as to political matters until the end of the school year (i.e., June 21, 2006).

According to lead attorney Richard D. Ackerman, “This is one of the worst governmental censorship cases I have seen in over a decade of practice. It is simply unbelievable that a school district would take sides with those who promote illegal activity over a student wishing to express his protected views in a traditionally and legally acceptable manner. These officials must be severely punished for their actions.” The law firm is handling this matter on a pro bono basis. The firm says that temporary restraining orders will be sought against the school within the next ten days.

Donations are being taken for Denhalter's legal costs through the donation link at http://www.profamilylawcenter.com. Those interested in helping this young man can designate the money to be used for the "Josh Denhalter First Amendment Fund." Tax deductible donations will only be used to assist in his and related First Amendment cases. Mr. Denhalter is going to boot camp five days after graduating from Jurupa Valley High School and cannot afford the costs of this litigation.

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Richard Ackerman