CONIFER, Colo. – As talk of war escalates, school boards across the country are grappling with the First Amendment: from first graders making peace posters to whether teachers can wear anti-war pins.
Some parents in Conifer, Colo., are fuming that a sixth-grade teacher wore a pin that said, "Not My President, Not My War," on a class trip.
When Linda Fowler's son came home from West Jefferson Middle School wondering why his teacher was against a possible war with Iraq, she took it personally.
"I'm not afraid to stand up for my country," said Fowler, whose father and grandfather are both war veterans. "I have family and friends that are currently in the military … you are crossing the line of what many Americans are teaching their children -- to be proud Americans."
The Fowlers wrote e-mails to the school to protest the wearing of the button.
But the Jefferson County School District, saying "teachers have the same First Amendment rights as all Americans," wouldn't demand the teacher remove the button -- although it said it encouraged teachers not to wear such items.
The First Amendment says: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
"They don't shed them (rights) at the schoolhouse gate," said First Amendment attorney Steve Zansbert. "However, courts have recognized that school districts can impose restrictions on teachers' speech rights within the classroom as long as they're reasonable related to legitimate teaching interests."
The school district first defended the teacher.
"She has not politicized her classroom nor tried to convince her students of her point of view," said the Feb. 26 statement.
But it later did an about-face: "It's inappropriate to wear a political button (on a field trip), since it's an extension of a classroom," district spokesman Rick Kaufman told the Denver Post, saying the media misinterpreted the statement.
"There is a fine line to be walked here," Kaufman said. "Teachers have a right to freedom of expression, but not when that expression disrupts the learning process" by forcing one viewpoint over another on the students.
The district and the teachers union -- the Jefferson County Education Association, an arm of the National Education Association -- said teachers "must be judicious in expressing their political opinions to avoid politicizing the classroom or disrupting the learning environment" and must provide a "neutral atmosphere."
"We don't believe that teachers lose their First Amendment rights when they enter the school building," Jeanne Beyer, spokeswoman for the Colorado Education Association, told the Rocky Mountain News. But, she noted, "the second part of that whole discussion is, is it appropriate? Even if your right is, in fact, protected, is it appropriate in your role as a professional educator to do that?"
"They need to be very careful what they say and do ... and make the kids feel safe," Fowler said.
The teacher who started the controversy in Colorado, horrified she caused such a fuss, has voluntarily taken off her anti-Bush pin. She wears an American flag lapel pin with a peace sign on it in the classroom.
"Although the teacher in question isn't being disciplined, she would do well to recall that after Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, the 11 states that eventually made up the Confederacy decided he wasn't their president," The Denver Post wrote in an editorial on Friday. "It took a long, bloody civil war to prove them wrong.
"On a more practical level, expressing such contempt for the presidency isn't exactly conducive to teaching good citizenship."
The potential war with Iraq is an emotional issue, and a school district's responsibility to stay neutral in the classroom has been a hot topic throughout the country.
On Wednesday, the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition is sponsoring an anti-war walk-out. An eleventh grader at Legacy High School in Colorado was suspended because he put up fliers in the hallway advocating the strike after the school suggested he put the leaflets on a community table.
The Maine National Guard has fielded complaints from at least 16 schools there from children with military parents that they are being criticized by teachers in the classroom and on the playground from other children. A state lawmaker there is investigating the complaints. The state education commissioner issued a mild letter to schools telling them to watch what they say.
A 60,000-student public school district in California in January unanimously approved a resolution condemning any U.S.-led war on Iraq and urged all schools to host a "public day of discussion" on the topic, which angered the local Parent Teachers Association, among others.
Eric Mar, the school board vice president who co-authored the resolution, denied that the board was trying to force its viewpoint on teachers or students, and said it was a money issue.
Critics called that reasoning "a masquerade" for how they really feel about the war.
Teachers unions like the California Federation of Teachers, Oakland Education Association and the Madison Teachers Inc. in Wisconsin have also passed resolutions opposing a war.
Fox News' Carol McKinley and Liza Porteus contributed to this report.