Wednesday, June 7, 2006
Student Sues School District, Claims He Was Denied First Amendment Right to Protest Illegal Immigration
By J’AMY PACHECO, Staff Writer
The attorney who successfully fought efforts to have an inspirational quote on a wall of the Riverside Historic Courthouse covered is now representing a student who alleges his First Amendment rights were violated after he attempted to speak out on the issue of illegal immigration.
Temecula attorney Richard Ackerman spoke yesterday about a suit he filed suit last week on behalf of Joshua Denhalter, a senior at Jurupa Valley High School. The suit accuses school officials of denying Denhalter his right to organize an off-campus protest to counter a walkout of Hispanic students protesting proposed legislation concerning illegal immigration.
The suit was filed in Riverside Superior Court. Ackerman said a hearing has been scheduled for early next year in Department 8 — the same courtroom whose walls he defended in 2004.
At issue then was a quote by President Theodore Roosevelt. It reads, “The true Christian is the true citizen.” Ackerman defended the quote after the Anti-Defamation League sought to have it covered by a mahogany panel whenever court was in session.
While Denhalter’s first court date is far in the future, Ackerman said he intends to seek a restraining order within the next few days to allow Denhalter to exercise his right to free speech before he leaves school on June 21.
The legal action stems from activities that took place on March 27, when a large number of high school students left class to protest proposed legislation addressing illegal immigration.
Denhalter did not join those students, but instead opted to organize an assembly as a counter-protest on a public sidewalk outside the school grounds during the lunch period, several days after the walkout, Ackerman said. The school has an open lunch, in which students may leave the school grounds. In preparation for his planned assembly, Denhalter started handing out flyers at school and was stopped by school officials. He refused, and was suspended.
Ackerman said the students who walked out of school on March 27 were not punished, but were instead allowed to make up work that they missed. Asked if the students who organized the walkout had distributed flyers on campus, he said, “That is a good question.”
In a written release, Ackerman’s office alleged the school did allow an on-campus rally to take place opposing the House-passed bill to protest illegal immigration, while denying Denhalter a similar opportunity. Denhalter was also allegedly ordered by school officials to turn a “Save Our State” t-shirt containing political speech inside out at school, and to stop wearing the shirt.
In a written statement, Ackerman described the situation as “one of the worst governmental censorship cases I have seen in over a decade of practice.”
Denhalter is joining the military and is scheduled to leave for basic training several days after he graduates.
“What disturbs me the most about this case is that he’s off to boot camp,” he said. “He’s ready to lay his life on the line to defend the Constitution, but his own First Amendment rights are not being recognized. That’s why I’m motivated.”
District officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
Ackerman’s firm, Lively, Ackerman & Cowles, is handling the case on a pro bono basis. In addition to the Riverside Courthouse matter, Ackerman’s firm has represented The Minuteman Project.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company