Free Speech in New Mexico
VOLOKH at law.ucla.edu
Mon May 24 10:40:35 PDT 2004
This does indeed seem like a very troubling case, if factually
accurate. Note, though, that there appears to be a response from the
school that takes issue with this factual account, which I include
below. I have no reason to doubt its authenticity (I've just confirmed
with Ms. Vesely that such a response exists, and she promised to e-mail
me a copy), though I have no opinion on its accuracy.
Thank you for your e-mail to the Rio Rancho Public Schools.
Recently, the Daytona Beach News-Journal published an editorial
highly critical of Rio Rancho High School and some of its staff members.
It was written by Bill Hill, a columnist for the paper and, he states, a
friend of Bill Nevins, an untenured teacher whose contract was not
renewed at the end of the 2002-03 school year. Mr. Nevins is currently
engaged in a legal action against the Rio Rancho Public Schools.
While we recognize the right of newspapers to engage in fair
criticism, such criticism should be grounded in the facts. We are
disturbed that neither the writer nor the Daytona Beach News-Journal
contacted the school district for information or comment. This
editorial, simply put, is rife with inaccuracies, misinformation, and
outright untruths. Its publication constitutes a reckless disregard for
the truth to such a degree that Rio Rancho Public Schools has asked its
lawyers to review and evaluate what legal recourse may be available.
Because Mr. Nevins' case is in litigation and involves a
personnel issue, Rio Rancho Public Schools has been limited in what it
can say in response to the many misrepresentations that have appeared in
the media. We are unable to discuss the reasons Mr. Nevins was not
rehired. However, we can state the reasons have nothing to do with the
exercise of free speech or free expression. This is not a free speech
The original lawsuit included three causes of action. Two of
these claims, for breach of his employment contract and for retaliation,
have since been dismissed by the federal court.
We wish to assure the public that the teaching, reading, and
writing of poetry are alive and well at Rio Rancho High School. The
editorial's contention that the school's principal ordered an end to the
teaching, reading, and writing of poetry is so ludicrous as to be almost
While we cannot discuss a case in litigation, we can address
some of the inaccuracies in the editorial that are not part of the case:
The editorial describes an incident involving art students and
teachers and "un-American" student posters. This incident did not occur
at Rio Rancho High School or anywhere in the Rio Rancho Public Schools.
It happened in a neighboring New Mexico school district and was widely
reported by the local media. A cursory check of the archives of the
Albuquerque papers would have revealed this fact.
Neither the Rio Rancho School Employees, Union (the union
representing most district employees) nor the American Civil Liberties
Union are parties to the current legal action.
The editorial states that the principal read a patriotic poem at
a flag-raising ceremony and shouted "shut your face," to those who did
not share his opinion. There was indeed a ceremony held to receive a
flag that had been flown in the war theatre and donated to the school. A
poem written by a soldier serving in Iraq was read (not shouted), but
not by the principal. The "shut your face" reference is part of this
The editorial states that Mr. Nevins was unable to go to work at
another school because the principal wouldn't forward his credentials.
On September 11, 2003, the Rio Rancho Observer reported that Mr. Nevins
was employed at a public charter school in Albuquerque. Procedurally,
requests for credentials must be properly authorized by the employee and
submitted to the Human Resources Department (not the principal). All
such requests are promptly processed.
The editorial describes a poem written by a student named
Courtney, and states that her mother (described as being a teacher at
the school) was ordered by the principal to destroy the girl's poem or
face dismissal. Not true. The student's mother is not a teacher;
however, she was and continues to be employed by the school district.
She was never threatened with being fired, nor was she ordered to
destroy the poem.
The district stands behind former RRHS principal Gary Tripp and
others who have been unfairly maligned in this editorial and in other
media in the months since Mr. Nevins' departure. We also regret that
Courtney and her family have been subjected to unwanted public
attention. About a year ago, Courtney wrote a statement that was
published in two local papers as a letter to the editor. She has given
us permission to share this letter with you, and we hope it helps you
further understand this situation.
Thank you for your inquiry and for giving us the opportunity to
respond. We look forward to a resolution of this issue in the legal
Rio Rancho Public Schools
Please feel free to share our response.
To Whom It May Concern:
This is the first and last time I will discuss publicly the
controversy surrounding my poem, the Slam Poetry Club, and RRHS teacher
Bill Nevins, the club's sponsor.
During the fall semester at RRHS I wrote a poem entitled
"Revolution X." I, along with other students, delivered poetry in the
Performing Arts Center at the high school. We received praise from staff
and students in the packed auditorium. Early in the spring term, I read
my poem again on the school announcements. This poem is a social
commentary. It comments on how our society claims to value education,
but in actuality spends energy, time and resources on other things, such
as war. A staff member, who has a military background and military
mindset, complained about the poem, saying it was an anti-war speech. I
can only assume that he cannot distinguish between a speech and a poem,
or that he did not recognize it as an allegory.
Due to the complaint, the administration asked for a copy of the
poem. No one demanded that my parents "search my room" for the poem, as
has been reported. I delivered it to the RRHS administrators when I got
back from Spring Break because they wished to read it. They read it,
looking for two things: profanity and incitement to violence. They found
neither. I was not disciplined. My freedom of speech was not violated.
It has been suggested that I was not disciplined because my parents are
on staff at the high school. Let me assure you that's not the case. In
my years at Rio Rancho High School, I've been tardy to class and been
busted for dress code, receiving my fair share of hours in after-school
detention. Staff members' kids are not given preferential treatment.
When I asked the administration why Mr. Nevins was put on
administrative leave, I was told that the reasons would not be discussed
with me, but that they had absolutely nothing to do with me or my poem.
I accept that. The administration at RRHS has been nothing but
supportive of my poetry endeavors and continue to encourage my writing,
even in light of all this nonsense.
Will the Slam Poetry Club continue to function in the absence of
Mr. Nevins? I don't know. I don't plan to participate because I simply
do not have the time. I'm trying to make a good grade in Chemistry,
maintain my GPA, choose a college for next year, and get on with my
However, I am angry about two things. My poem has been put on
the Internet. I did not give permission for anyone to print it or copy
it. What makes it worse is that lines have been changed and added. My
poem has been prostituted for the world to see. My freedom of speech has
been violated because I chose not to speak, but now my words are under
scrutiny despite my attempts otherwise.
My family and I have been bombarded for weeks with questions
about all of this by newspapers, TV stations, and even national
publications. My family's well-earned Spring Break was interrupted
repeatedly. This has caused undue stress for my family and is not
appreciated. I will comment no further on the subject. I will accept
neither calls nor visitors wishing to discuss anything pertaining to
this issue. Now that curiosity has been satisfied, I can only hope that
we will focus on something more important, like bringing home everyone
fighting in the war we insist on having.
From: conlawprof-bounces at lists.ucla.edu
[mailto:conlawprof-bounces at lists.ucla.edu] On Behalf Of Paul Finkelman
Sent: Monday, May 24, 2004 10:36 AM
Subject: Free Speech in New Mexico
Daytona Beach News-Journal Online
Hard lessons from poetry class: Speech is free unless it's
By BILL HILL
Last update: 15 May 2004
Bill Nevins, a New Mexico high school teacher and personal
friend, was fired last year and classes in poetry and the poetry club at
Rio Rancho High School were permanently terminated. It had nothing to do
with obscenity, but it had everything to do with extremist politics.
The "Slam Team" was a group of teenage poets who asked Nevins to
serve as faculty adviser to their club. The teens, mostly shy
youngsters, were taught to read their poetry aloud and before audiences.
Rio Rancho High School gave the Slam Team access to the school's
closed-circuit television once a week and the poets thrived.
In March 2003, a teenage girl named Courtney presented one of
her poems before an audience at Barnes & Noble bookstore in Albuquerque,
then read the poem live on the school's closed-circuit television
A school military liaison and the high school principal accused
the girl of being "un-American" because she criticized the war in Iraq
and the Bush administration's failure to give substance to its "No child
left behind" education policy.
The girl's mother, also a teacher, was ordered by the principal
to destroy the child's poetry. The mother refused and may lose her job.
Bill Nevins was suspended for not censoring the poetry of his
students. Remember, there is no obscenity to be found in any of the
poetry. He was later fired by the principal.
After firing Nevins and terminating the teaching and reading of
poetry in the school, the principal and the military liaison read a poem
of their own as they raised the flag outside the school. When the
principal had the flag at full staff, he applauded the action he'd taken
in concert with the military liaison.
Then to all students and faculty who did not share his political
opinions, the principal shouted: "Shut your faces." What a wonderful
lesson he gave those 3,000 students at the largest public high school in
New Mexico. In his mind, only certain opinions are to be allowed.
But more was to come. Posters done by art students were ordered
torn down, even though none was termed obscene. Some were satirical,
implicating a national policy that had led us into war. Art teachers who
refused to rip down the posters on display in their classrooms were not
given contracts to return to the school in this current school year.
The message is plain. Critical thinking, questioning of public
policies and freedom of speech are not to be allowed to anyone who does
not share the thinking of the school principal.
The teachers union has been joined in a legal action against the
school by the National Writers Union, headquartered in New York City.
NWU's at-large representative Samantha Clark lives and works in
The American Civil Liberties Union has become the legal arm of
the lawsuit pending in federal court.
Meanwhile, Nevins applied for a teaching post in another school
and was offered the job but he can't go to work until Rio Rancho's
principal sends the new school Nevins' credentials. The principal has
refused to do so, and that adds yet another issue to the lawsuit, which
is awaiting a trial date.
While students are denied poetry readings, poetry clubs and
classes in poetry, Nevins works elsewhere and writes his own poetry.
Writers and editors who have spent years translating essays,
films, poems, scientific articles and books by Iranian, North Korean and
Sudanese authors have been warned not to do so by the U.S. Treasury
Department under penalty of fine and imprisonment. Publishers and film
producers are not allowed to edit works authored by writers in those
nations. The Bush administration contends doing so has the effect of
trading with the enemy, despite a 1988 law that exempts published
materials from sanction under trade rules.
Robert Bovenschulte, president of the American Chemical Society,
is challenging the rule interpretation by violating it to edit into
English several scientific papers from Iran.
Are book burnings next?
Hill is a retired News-Journal reporter.
Chapman Distinguished Professor of Law
University of Tulsa College of Law
3120 East 4th Place
Tulsa, OK 74104-3189
paul-finkelman at utulsa.edu
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
More information about the Conlawprof