Tenn. school censors student's atheism editorial, says it would be distracting

TENNESSEE — Ahigh school student in a predominantly Christian town has had her atheism editorialcensored, with her superintendent claiming the column would pose “academicchallenges” to the school district.

Lenoir City Superintendent Wayne Miller said there is noformal review process for the PantherPress weekly student newspaper, but the topics of sexuality, politics andreligion are generally avoided because they inspire “passionate conversations.”

“We’ve got a lot of academic challenges that we’re trying tomeet,” Miller said, “and (addressing religion) is just not something I’minterested in distracting from what we’re trying to do.”

Krystal Myers, 18, penned “No Rights: The Life of anAtheist” after learning about separation of church and state laws in class. Sheresearched court cases about religion and applied her findings to the school’spractices.

Miller said Myers’ editorial was factually inaccurate, whichserved as a secondary reason for the school board’s decision to censor.

Myers, the newspaper’s editor, claimed some teachers promoteChristianity and that prayer occurs at football games, graduation and schoolboard meetings. Miller said the teachers do not promote religious practice andthat there is no prayer at graduation. Football games feature prayer, he said,but students always lead it. However, the school board does pray beforemeetings.

The editorial was published on the Knoxville News Sentinel website. Miller and Myers both said theyhave not noticed any disruption since publication, and Myers said no one at theschool has been outwardly negative toward her since.

The school has a club in place called Positive Peer Pressureto give students a place to freely express themselves, Miller said.

The group’s adviser, Mary Harding, said the group isprimarily focused on health issues; to her knowledge, religion has never comeup. 

“If (religion) came up, we would address it,” Harding said,“but it’s never come up.”

Myers said she has never attended the group’s meetings anddoes not plan to.

Myers said she doesn’t feel it’s necessary to push forpublication, but that she’s thinking of attempting to publish it packaged withan opposing viewpoint. Miller said there is absolutely no chance the editorialwill be published at the school, despite its publication in other media.

“At this point, I don’t know if it really matters,” Myerssaid, “because everybody already knows. Students already know, so it’s justgoing to be repetitive.”

Nonetheless, Myers said she and her parents are stilldiscussing whether they will take further action.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press LawCenter, said in order to censor speech as “disruptive,” the school must be ableto prove an actual threat of disruption.

“You have to be able to point to concrete facts,” LoMontesaid, “such as a history of disruption that has occurred after this type ofspeech. If you can show that people’s expression of atheist views have touchedoff fistfights or riots, then that may be a winning argument.”

However, if the school can prove Myers’ editorial wasinaccurate, its censorship may be justified — but only if the inaccuracies aresignificant enough.

“It goes to the magnitude of the alleged mistake,” LoMontesaid. “If the alleged mistake fundamentally makes the column wrong, then that’sa lawful basis under Hazelwood. Ifit’s an immaterial fact, then that starts to look like a pretext.”

The 1988 Supreme Court case Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier allows schools to control “school-sponsored”student speech based on “legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

Panther PressAdviser James Yoakley said a pro-Christian news article was published two years ago atthe urging of the administration, even though the editor of the paper did notfeel comfortable doing so.

However, Miller said the pro-Christian piece was censored.

It is unclear whether the piece was published, held oredited. LoMonte said he is adamant the school did not act within legal boundsif administrators urged its publication, but censored the atheism editorial.

“No court has ever said that a school can prefer oneviewpoint in a contested issue over another viewpoint,” LoMonte said.“Viewpoint discrimination is essentially never allowed under the FirstAmendment.”