A Dakota Ridge High School student who wore a “Nobama” sticker taped across the front of his shirt prior to an appearance by Michelle Obama will receive $4,000 from Jefferson County authorities, the ACLU of Colorado announced today.
The $4,000 settlement agreement with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department and the Jefferson County School District avoided a potential lawsuit, according to a news release from Taylor Pendergrass, ACLU staff attorney.
On Nov. 3, 2008, Blake Benson showed up outside the high school gym as others were lined up to enter the gym to hear Michelle Obama speak.
Benson was one of three students who chose to “stay and campaign” for Sen. John McCain at the school prior to the speech.
According to the ACLU, Dakota Ridge school officials told Benson to leave. When he refused, officials had Benson handcuffed, searched and arrested for interference — a charge that carries up to six months in jail and a $750 fine.
At the time of his arrest, Benson was holding a McCain-Palin campaign sign.
Benson was also given a one-day suspension by principal Jim Jelinek. In his notice of suspension, Jelinek stated the reason was that “Blake was directed to cease politically protesting on school grounds,” said the ACLU.
ACLU cooperating attorney Dan Recht represented Benson in the criminal case. In May, Jefferson County officials said they would not pursue the criminal charges.
“Jefferson County officials were wrong to censor the peaceful, purely political speech of a high school student just a day before a historic national election,” Pendergrass said in a statement. “We should be encouraging civic engagement and political discourse in our high schools. Unfortunately, Jefferson County officials sent exactly the opposite message last November by arresting Mr. Benson for expressing his political views.”
Both the school district and the sheriff’s department agreed to pay $2,000 to settle claims that Jefferson County violated Benson’s free speech rights.
The ACLU noted that Jefferson County officials did not admit to wrongdoing.
In a statement, Benson said that what his teachers taught him about “our constitutional rights wasn’t respected outside the classroom.
“If one thing comes from this case, I hope it is that other students will learn more about their free speech rights and not be afraid to use them.”
Jacki Kelley, spokeswoman for the Jefferson County sheriff’s department, confirmed that the $2,000 was paid.
Kelley also confirmed that an internal-affairs investigation was launched to see what, if any, punishment the deputy who issued the citation to Benson should receive.
Kelley said the investigation has concluded but the results will not be revealed because it involves a personnel matter.
However, she added that “lessons were learned from the investigation.”
By Howard Pankratz
The Denver Post