"Every time a case like this occurs -- every time someone is sued or punished or forced to hire a lawyer just for expressing an opinion or making a comment that someone of a different color finds offensive, all of us are left with a little less freedom of speech. Dismayingly, such cases seem to be occurring more frequently than ever. Now and then one of these incidents draws national scorn. A few years ago, a wave of ridicule forced the mayor of Washington, D.C., to rehire an aide who had been accused of racism and forced to resign for using the word "niggardly" -- a synonym for stingy."
This paragraph confused me and I think it illustrates an erroneous line of thought that many have about free speech and inflammatory speech.
First of all, every time a case like this occurs--as regrettable as it is that the defendants had to deal with all of this in the first place--free speech is expanded and/or protected. Think about it: this case could have gone one of two ways, for or against free speech and the defendants' right to it. The decision went in favor of the defendants/speech.
Had it NOT gone in the defendants' favor, they would simply have appealed, possibly all the way to the Supreme Court, where the Brandenburg v. Ohio decision is still the binding, dominant piece of case precedent that protects inflammatory speech as long as it is not clearly designed to incite/provoke imminent lawless action. The Court would clearly rule in favor of the defendant, maybe even in a 9-0 decision, as they largely have in these sorts of cases. In fact, there have been almost no challenges to the Brandenburg rationale since its release in 1969. I can't really think of any that don't reaffirm it.
Regarding the school vote/poster thing: this may in fact be an area in which the Court would actually rule in favor of the school removing the posters and effectively infringing upon the white students' speech rights. I don't think it would go that way necessarily, but the Court does have to take into consideration the phrase "designed to cause imminent lawless action" and whether that is a possibility here. They also need to devise some sort of test so that determining what may and may not cause lawless action is not entirely arbitrary.
Two rights are at odds here, for all intents and purposes, and in my opinion the matter should be left to the schools or their districts rather than the courts. I don't know where Supreme Court precedent goes in this direction, but I'd have to think they'd really only be concerned with handling it in a way that doesn't allow for segregation/racial inequality as defined by Brown v. Brd of Ed. and subsequent cases. They'd probably allow the school districts to determine for themselves what "imminent lawless action" constitutes in their "jurisdiction", and only hear cases if someone felt that a speech rights violation occurred that was not consistent with a reasonable definition of "lawless action". In this case, the plaintiff (white students) would have to file suit and appeal all the way to the SC in the hopes that they'd actually even take the case, assuming that the decision at the local court level wasn't in their favor to begin with.
And nobody is really going to pursue all of that for some bullshit like this, so while the media may like to play this up as another example of The Man coming down on free speech or some other likewise erosion of the fundamental right, the reality is that it isn't happening at all in this manner. The only issue in this particular case that really matters is whether or not the white students' or the black students' behavior constitutes action that will clearly and is intentionally designed to cause imminent lawless action.