Nov 14, 2001

Freedom of Speech Student says her anti-abortion speech cut short in classroom

Independent Tribune

MOUNT PLEASANT -- When you step into a classroom, do you lose your First Amendment rights?  One Mount Pleasant High School student is wondering why her speech on abortion was cut short by a teacher. 

Tawni Koloff, a junior at Mount Pleasant High School, is against abortion.

As part of her leadership class, students were asked to give an "inspirational speech" and pick a topic they were passionate about.  Koloff chose abortion.  Prior to the speech, Koloff submitted an outline to her teacher highlighting the main points of the presentation.   In the outline, Koloff used phrases like "abortion is murder" and included a topic titled "How it happens and how it affects the baby."  Underneath that, Koloff drew a line to a phrase that said "surgical, chemical abortions, the baby feels pain." 

The teacher approved the outline. According to Koloff, half-way through her speech, the teacher asked her to stop.  Koloff was at the part in her presentation where she began to describe, in graphic detail, how an abortion is performed.  The class is designed to develop the students' leadership skills and has involved some classroom debates.  Koloff says other topics that day included freedom of speech, racism and euthanasia, so when the teacher asked Koloff to stop, she was shocked.  "I just wanted to get it out there that this is how abortion really is," she said. "It was an open-ended assignment ... I didn't know how far too far was.  You can watch people in the hallways and how they act or dissect a frog or take a sex education class and hear and learn graphic things. I should be able to talk about what goes into an abortion."

That's when Koloff decided to go to a school administrator.  David Grice, assistant principal for instruction at Mount Pleasant High, said the teacher made the call to cut Koloff's speech when the descriptions became too graphic.  Grice showed Koloff the school's parent/student handbook and pinpointed a specific rule that prohibits "disrupting the educational environment." Grice said he supports the teacher's decision and says he doesn't think Tawni was wrongfully censored.

"Classrooms can be a forum for passion and free ideas," Grice said. "Mount Pleasant is a wonderful school and I think Tawni is an integral part.  "There's no right or wrong," he said. "She (Tawni) did a good job and the
teacher stopped her near the end of the speech."

But Tawni says she was the victim of censorship.

Though the Koloffs aren't planning any legal action against the school, the question remains. Were Tawni's First Amendment rights violated?  According to Louis Dean Bilinis, professor of constitutional law at the
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, legal precedents set in the past could go either way.  "Students don't lose their constitutional rights just because they are students," Bilinis said.  "Expressing an unpopular view or something that causes discomfort or unpleasantness is not enough of a basis to censor a student's speech."
Bilinis adds that earlier legal precedents set back in the 1960s would seem to support Koloff.   However, more recent cases have gone the other way.  "The courts have upheld various acts of school censorship when action was taken to preserve the quorum of discussion," Bilinis said.  Bilinis cites cases where school newspapers have been successfully censored because they were also deemed "disruptive."   Ultimately, it would be up to a court to decide.

Despite the controversy, Tawni says she loves her school and her teacher. In fact, she's a cheerleader, a member of the student council and has twice been voted by her peers to the homecoming court.  Though Tawni did receive a good grade on her speech, she's not backing down and insists she has a right to finish her presentation.  "Just because someone tells you 'no' doesn't mean it's right," she said.  "You have to stand-up for what you think is right."

Tawni is the daughter of Victoria and Nikita Koloff, the former pro-wrestler turned evangelist.  Victoria is an equally passionate anti-abortion activist and teaches abstinence education to adolescents. She stands by her daughter's decisions.  "I totally stand behind Tawni," Victoria said. "She's not a robot. She's entitled to her own opinions."

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