TOPEKA, Kan. - A Topeka Public Schools employee was asked to change, per district policy, when she wore a Barack Obama shirt to school. It has sparked concern from community activist Sonny Scroggins and Bias Busters of Kansas, but the school district stands by its political policies.
USD 501 is not alone in the practice. Auburn-Washburn, Manhattan-Ogden and Emporia school districts all have similar policies regarding political displays on campus.
But some say what happened to the Topeka paraprofessional is a violation of the right to freedom of speech.
Franklin Thomas Young joined Bias Busters' small protest outside William Magnet School Thursday. "We feel there's been an injustice done to an employee of USD 501 for wearing a Barack Obama t-shirt," Young said. "We're not actually talking about a political item, we're talking about a t-shirt with a picture of Barack Obama on it. And I think it's a violation of her free speech rights under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and we think that 501 should change their policies."
USD 501 Communications Director, Ron Harbaugh, said that the paraprofessional was explained the policy after the principal saw her wearing the Obama shirt at school. "As far as I understand it, the teacher said, 'fine,' went home, changed, and came back," said Harbaugh.
"It's free speech," said Young. "It doesn't say, 'Elect Barack Obama President of the United States 2008.' It was a picture. And I might point out his nomination is historic... so I don't think those have anything to do with campaigning politically."
"You can say you're not promoting it, but why would you wear it if you don't like the person or didn't believe in him?" said Harbaugh. "It'd be like, would I wear a KU shirt if I were a K-State fan?"
Harbaugh says USD 501 isn't doing anything different than most other schools in the nation, and that the matter has nothing to do with which candidate is on the shirt. "This pertains to candidates - whether state or national. So no matter who it would've been on the person's shirt, they would've been told to do the same thing," Harbaugh said.
District officials say the policy is to prohibit one-sided views imposed on students. "If there's some kind of a political discussion, that's different," Harbaugh said. "There's nothing wrong with learning about politics and the election process, but we want to make sure there's not a person promoting certain views, not promoting a certain candidate."