It was a typical last day of classes at Summerville High School inTuolumne, Calif., for sophomore Chiara Gustafson.
She went from class to class turning in final assignments and counting downthe hours until summer vacation. Gustafson submitted her final article,”Wrestling Gay,” a satire about wrestlers being gay, in herjournalism class. The assignment was to create several “spoof”editions of the newspaper, the Bear Tracks — but when the finishedproducts reached the hands of administrators, it was no laughing matter.
“What I wrote about the wrestlers being gay, obviously it wassupposed to be a joke,” Gustafson said. “That was the wholepoint.”
When Gustafson arrived home from her last day of sophomore year, her mothersaid, the administration called home to say Gustafson was going to be punishedfor writing the article.
“I was shocked,” Gustafson said. “I’m in troublefor what I did in class.”
The students in the class faced suspension, but were permitted to completecommunity service instead. Student editors were given 20 hours of communityservice, and writers were punished based on how administrators gauged theseverity of their articles. Gustafson served eight hours of communityservice.
The spoof editions were never intended to be distributed and were merely aclass project. School officials found out about the satire articles fromstudents outside of the journalism class who had one of the assignments andbrought it to the administration.
Adam Kissel, director of the Individual Rights Defense Program atFoundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), said the impetus forcensorship typically comes from administrators rather than students.
“When a student wants to censor, they can act illegally to tear downa poster or to steal newspapers, but more often, if a student wants somethingcensored, they’ll go to the administration and try to get theadministration to do it,” Kissel said. “And all too often, theadministration complies.”
Censorship or oversight of student publications typically stems from schoolpolicies or directives. School boards nationwide impose regulations like priorreview of content before publication, but cases involving students’ rightsto expression go beyond the censorship of student media. From wearing a T-shirtsupporting gay rights to keeping a profane bumper sticker on the back of atruck, students like Gustafson fight censorship in many different forms.
“I wrote this article in class and then they suspend me,”
Gustafson said. “I wasn’t disrupting class activity, I wasn’tthreatening anyone.”
As the Gustafson case illustrates, censorship of student speech goes beyondthe pages of student publications. District and federal courts nationwide haveheard cases involving students who claimed their right to free expression wasviolated by high school administrators banning politically charged T-shirts,armbands, buttons and other paraphernalia bearing messages.
In 2003, a U.S. district court in Michigan ruled that a high school studenthad the right to wear a T-shirt with a picture of then-President George W. Bushand a caption reading “International Terrorist.” The student filedthe lawsuit after administrators asked him to turn the shirt inside-out or gohome from school. The student went home.
In 2002, a federal district court in Massachusetts ruled that students atWestfield High School had the right to distribute candy canes that included areminder about the school’s Bible club meeting and a scripture verse. Theclub members served a one-day suspension after distributing the candy canesbecause the principal believed that others could deem the messageoffensive.
Kissel said that even since the Tinker v. Des Moines IndependentCommunity School District decision, which said that administrators do nothave the authority to stifle student speech unless it is disruptive to theeducational process, the limits of free speech at the high school level areunclear.
“We don’t really know what the limits of freedom of speech arefor high school students for sure,” Kissel said. “You still get dueprocess as a high school student. You still need to have a certain amount ofnotice that certain types of activities are banned, especially when it comes toyour First Amendment rights.”
Gustafson is not alone in facing censorship in extraordinary forms.
A student at Walla Walla High School in Walla Walla, Wash., was suspendedfor profane bumper stickers on her truck. One sticker, which read, “Ifucked your boyfriend,” was on Megan White’s truck for more than ayear before the school administration raised the issue.
After administrators asked White to remove the sticker, she added a secondone to the truck, which read, “Go fuck yourself.” She was suspendedafter refusing to remove both stickers.
“It clearly was not interfering with the educational mission of theschool,” said Brian Pickett, Youth Programs Coordinator for the NationalCoalition Against Censorship, who advocated on behalf of White. “We feltlike the school was overstepping the bounds of its authority by requiring her toremove it from the car.”
White eventually complied with the administration’s request to coverthe stickers.
Unlike White, a student at Ponce de Leon High School in Ponce de Leon,Fla., took her dispute over censorship of a more substantive political messageto court – and won.
Heather Gillman filed a lawsuit against the School Board of Holmes Countyafter then-Principal David Davis prohibited students from wearing clothing,stickers and buttons supporting gay rights.
According to court documents, Davis told a senior student thathomosexuality is a sin and told the girl’s parents that she is a lesbian.Gillman and other students began a gay-rights movement at school by wearingrainbows and pink triangles, writing “Gay Pride” or “GP”
on their bodies, and wearing clothing with slogans like “Gay? Fine ByMe,” “I’m Straight, But I Vote Pro-Gay,” and “GodLoves Me Just the Way I Am.”
Davis suspended 11 students, including Gillman’s cousin, after theteenagers were questioned about their sexual orientation.
Gillman won the lawsuit, and U.S. District Judge Richard Smoak wrote in theopinion that “Davis embarked on what can only be characterized as a’witch hunt’ to identify students who were homosexual and theirsupporters.”
The court ruled that the students’ rights were violated, whichPickett said is an issue among administrators.
“They may choose not to respect a student’s rights, but thatdoesn’t take those rights away from the student.” Pickettsaid.
Gustafson and her classmates at Summerville are entitled to rights asstudents, but she said that now, almost one year after the incident, the issueis still not resolved. The journalism program at Summerville High School wascanceled because of the incident, and it is uncertain whether the class will beoffered in the fall.
“I don’t think the student body knew much about it,”
Gustafson said. “This year it comes up every once in awhile and no onereally knows the facts. They just know there was a class — journalism— and it got canceled.”
Pickett said that he hopes administrators can learn from situations likethese to prevent censorship in the future, especially in these uniqueforms.
“Even though in this go-around they chose not to respect thestudents’ rights to free expression in this way … maybe the next timearound, the kind of institutional memory of having to deal with this and beingchallenged by some outside voices will perhaps influence their decisions,”Pickett said, “How realistic that is, I don’t know, but onehopes.”