HAMLET — Another civil rights organization is weighing in on a controversial decision to recall the yearbooks at Richmond Early College High School following what school officials said was the discovery of “inappropriate” senior quotes.
In a May 17 letter to Principal Tonya Waddell, John Whitehead of the Virgina-based Rutherford Institute says the confiscation “constitutes an act of censorship in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
The school system previously confirmed in a statement that “a handful” of the 2017 yearbooks — which had already been paid for — for the early college were recalled by Waddell after “the school and district administration felt several of the quotes submitted by students were inappropriate.”
The district referred to the quotes as “a mistake … discovered by the principal” and said those that had been handed out were taken back the same morning and the rest were not distributed.
The only “inappropriate” quote that is known is “Build that wall,” attributed to President Donald Trump, which was used by then-senior Miranda Taylor. The only reason it is known is because a photo of her, along with the quote from the yearbook, was posted to Facebook.
“As an organization committed to ensuring that America’s schools not only teach the constitutional principles on which this nation was founded but also exercise them, The Rutherford Institute has helped countless communities balance student freedom with maintaining a healthy learning environment,” Whitehead said. “While we understand the particular challenges that school administrators must grapple with in creating nurturing environments for learning while also accommodating the varied—and sometimes controversial—views of its students, censorship should never be the answer.”
Whitehead went on to offer an analysis of First Amendment law to help in “untangling this knotty problem.”
Citing the U.S. Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines, Whitehead said it has been long established that students to not shed their right to freedom of speech at the schoolhouse door, adding that extends to student yearbooks.
“Thus, ‘inappropriate’ or not, the decision by a student to select the ‘Build that wall’ quote to accompany her senior photo was clearly an act of expression protected by the First Amendment,” he said. “Public schools may not censor a student’s speech because they disagree with the student’s message or in order to avoid the discomfort that accompanies an unpopular opinion.
Censorship, Whitehead noted, is justified only if the speech causes material and substantial disruption of the operation of the school. He said there is no indication that Taylor’s use of Trump’s quote caused the type of disruption that would justify the school’s actions.
“That some individuals objected to the viewpoint expressed by the quote is not sufficient cause for the school to ban the yearbook as originally printed,” he said. “The fact that certain ‘hecklers’ may object to a student’s speech does not license school officials to forbid that speech.”
Whitehead went on to say that just because the quote was deemed “inappropriate,” the decision is not justified.
“Although schools may restrict speech that is obscene, lewd or vulgar, it clearly may not censor student speech because the speech is political in nature,” he said. “To the contrary, schools must respect student freedom of expression by tolerating divergent political and religious views, even when the views expressed may be unpopular.”
According to his analysis, White head said prohibiting the yearbooks from being distributed was not necessary to maintain order or discipline, but only served to censor protected expression.
“It is far better to teach students about the First Amendment and about why we tolerate divergent views than to suppress speech,” Whitehead said. “To this end, the ban on the yearbooks as originally printed should be reversed, the confiscated yearbooks should be returned to those who have already paid for them, and the sale and distribution of the yearbook should be resumed.”
Because it was so late in the year, school officials said a decision was made to not have the yearbooks reprinted. Early college students graduated last Friday.
Whitehead concluded his letter by offering assistance in “striking a proper balance between creating nurturing environments for learning while also accommodating the varied — and sometimes controversial — views of its students.”
Reach William R. Toler at 910-817-2675 and follow him on Twitter @William_r_Toler.