Milk has been a mainstay of school lunches for centuries. However, Williamson believes it is time to explore alternatives for a variety of nutritional and environmental reasons. She notes that forty-two percent of American households bought plant milk in 2021.
Williamson has followed a vegetarian diet, but was told by the school that she would need a doctor’s note to get a plant-based beverage instead of dairy with her lunch. She then did something that one would think the school would support: she became an advocate. She gave out non-dairy samples and sought to have a “day of action” heralding the benefits of non-dairy milk. The administration agreed to allow the event but told her she had to include pro-milk literature.
Her lawyers argued that this is an example of the hold of the milk industry and the Department of Agriculture on school. USDA guidelines require milk to be served with public school lunches. The milk is subsidized by the Department and this brings big bucks to the industry. An estimated seven percent of U.S. liquid dairy milk is consumed in schools.
In Tinker v. Des Moines, the Supreme Court famously declared that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” This would seem precisely what Tinker was meant to protect.
It is bizarre that the district would make Williamson’s advocacy contingent on her agreeing to pass out literature in favor of the industry that she opposes. It is like telling students during the 60s that they could pass out anti-war literature so long as it included pro-war or military recruitment flyers.
Williamson’s advocacy was not disruptive for the school. Indeed, it would have allowed for a beneficial debate on an interesting issue with environmental, nutritional, and philosophical elements. That seems a lot more educational than the usual hallway banter over the latest TikTok star. The financial arrangement over milk distribution only makes this prior restraint more problematic.
The underlying right, however, can be a double edged sword. Many on the left are supporting Colorado in a major free speech case before the Supreme Court: 303 Creative v. Elenis. In that case, Lori Smith, a graphic artist, is seeking the right to decline clients due to her religious objections to same-sex marriages. The state is asserting the right to not only compel such speech (by requiring Smith to do the work) but also to prevent Elenis from putting a statement on her website on her religious objections. Thus, it is a both a compelled speech and censorship case.
In this case, the school could have allowed any students to present countervailing, pro-milk literature. It could also have placed such literature in the cafeteria to explain the benefits of milk from the perspective of the district. Those seem reasonable alternatives to requiring a student to pass out pro-milk material as a condition for advocating for alternatives to milk.
Williamson could always quote Harvey Milk in her fight to speak out against milk: “I have tasted freedom. I will not give up that which I have tasted.”