Opinions Editor

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

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The sign — Black Lives Matter — in the window of Westview Elementary School in Champaign was a simple statement that raised many questions.

Or was it more than a statement?

“Black Lives Matter” is at least three things — a statement, an organization and a political movement.

So when the sign was recently posted facing the street in a window at Westview, heads turned, lawyers were consulted and the sign was eventually removed.

While the issue may be new to Champaign, slogan-driven controversy involving political speech on public property is not unique to this community.

In Charlotte, N.C., there’s controversy over a “babies’ lives matter” message painted on the street in front of a facility where abortions are performed.

In Chardon, Ohio, there’s controversy over a “thin blue line” flag supporting police that school officials ordered removed.

What’s the problem? Don’t the lives of Blacks, babies and police officers matter?

That’s not the issue, of course. This is a free-speech question that involves the posting of what can be construed as political messages on public property.

Although some people prefer a simplistic approach — one that judges the message’s legal propriety solely on whether they agree with it — it’s not a particularly easy issue to address.

“You can get yourself into a First Amendment imbroglio,” said Urbana lawyer and former University of Illinois law Professor Steve Beckett.

All kind of questions pop up about the nature of the speech.

What is the school district’s policy on public expression of that nature?

Did the school board or a top administrator authorize the message? Or was it someone lower down the food chain? Who’s the target of the message — students inside the school or passersby outside the school?

Is the message related to some kind of educational program?

Here’s a real First Amendment brain-teaser:

Monticello lawyer Brian Braun, whose law firm represents more than 100 school districts, said online education has created a whole new issue about speech rights.

“We’ve had students on remote learning with Confederate flags in the background,” he said, referring to images sometimes on display in students’ homes.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides free-speech rights to individuals, meaning that they are generally free to express their points of view on the issues of the day without interference from the government.

That’s why political yard signs are on display through the community.

But it’s a different story with government institutions, like public schools.

They can post political viewpoints, but government officials can’t pick and choose from the messages they promulgate.

When they do, it’s called “viewpoint discrimination,” a major-league constitutional no-no.

“I think the question is whether a school permitting a slogan to be posted is government endorsing a particular form of speech,” said Beckett.

If it is, it can’t deny that forum to an opposing viewpoint.

So, theoretically, other signs could end up next to the “Black Lives Matter” sign in the Westview window — like the signs in Charlotte, N.C., or Chardon, Ohio.

That was the point made by the school district’s lawyers, who suggested a parade of horribles if the Westview signed was not removed.

“If the District permits political signs in classroom windows, then it would be permitting this as a limited public form for political speech on signs. In a limited public forum, the school district cannot exclude based on viewpoint. Therefore, should the District permit BLM signs, it cannot later prohibit other signs, such as ‘Blue Lives Matter,’ ‘Make America Great Again,’ or ‘the Chief,’” they advised.

Westview Principal Nick Swords said the sign was posted in the window “by a classroom teacher.”

“That’s all I’ll share at this time,” he said.

The Westview controversy, obviously, stemmed from someone who didn’t know any better entering the political thicket without understanding how volatile the combination of political speech and public property can be.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a layman wouldn’t know the score because lawyers must ask questions to gather the information necessary to render an opinion on messaging.

Asked for his opinion, Braun said one key issue is whether speech is “institutional or personal,” but even that is complicated.

“It could be someone’s personal speech who didn’t understand it was institutional speech,”

he said.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at 217-351-5369 or jdey@news-gazette.com.