A student paints a wish for Iranian freedom on a bench that has been approved for students’ artistic and expressive use. Administrators disapprove of the political message, and have it painted over. Students then protest by painting an appeal for freedom of speech. And … oh, you’re way ahead of me on this. Yeah, the school paints that over, too.
You can’t make this stuff up, right? Unfortunately, you don’t have to. It’s going on at a high school in, of all places, California, which — on paper — has the best legal protection of student speech rights in the country.
La Jolla High School Principal Dana Shelburne has painted his school into a legal corner (groan, sorry) by acknowledging that student expression is permitted — even encouraged — on the three concrete benches outside the San Diego-area school. Once it is established that the benches have, by tradition, been held open for students’ expressive use, then the school may not lawfully prefer certain viewpoints over others.
While there may be some room for argument whether a “Freedom For Iran” message belonged on the benches, since it addressed political issues beyond the scope of the venue, there is none whatsoever as to the students’ “Freedom For LJHS” message that followed. Discussion of school events is the traditional use to which the benches have been devoted, and — because it is undisputed that a pro-school message would have been allowed — censoring a message critical of the school was slam-dunk unlawful.
The Student Press Law Center sent a letter of concern Thursday to Principal Shelburne and Superintendent Bill Kowba urging the school to bring its practices in line with California Education Code 48907, which guarantees California students a right of free expression unless their speech is itself unlawful, or imminently threatens to provoke unlawful or disruptive conduct on campus.
The original artist whose work spawned this controversy, Yasamin Elahi, wrote a beautifully argued op-ed published on the website of the San Diego Union-Tribune today, making the case for why students should be encouraged to use creative, non-disruptive methods to speak out on issues of public concern. Her measured and mature column puts the lie to the stereotype that “children” have nothing of value to contribute to the political discourse, and it should leave those who sought to muzzle her voice burning with shame:
The administration’s actions show an ironic parallel to what is actually taking place in Iran. This is why I believe so many students view the school’s actions as unjust. Acts of censorship such as those by Principal Shelburne impose a chilling effect on political speech. As an Iranian-American, I especially understand that we cannot take our freedoms for granted, and I am compelled to defend them.
There is not enough Sherwin-Williams latex in all of California to cover over the school’s wrongdoing here. Sometimes a paint job just isn’t enough. Sometimes, you need a total housecleaning.