Censorship FAIL: Refusal to publish atheism column puts school district’s policies under the constitutional microscope

Unless you are one of the financial backers of “John Carter,” it is hard to conceive of a more disastrous flop than the Lenoir City School District’s efforts to suppress a teenager’s column about religious indoctrination in schools.

Had Krystal Myers’ column, “No Rights, the Life of an Atheist,” been allowed to run in the Lenoir City High School newspaper, its impact would have been limited to the Panther Press‘ tiny audience. The item would have provoked half a day of hallway discussion, perhaps the stray irate phone call from a thin-skinned parent, and then quickly faded like the paper it was printed on.

But that’s not what happened.

On Wednesday, the Knoxville News-Sentinel reported that the district was immediately discontinuing prayers before school board meetings and football games, while investigating allegations from the ACLU and other national civil-liberties groups that the district’s practices unlawfully entangle government with religion. There is every reason to anticipate that, if the district resumes its prior conduct, it will face a costly and time-consuming federal lawsuit.

The ACLU, it goes without saying, does not subscribe to the Panther Press. But by denying Myers the chance to be heard in the pages of the campus newspaper, Lenoir City Schools Superintendent Wayne Miller handed her a 90-decibel electric bullhorn and an illuminated stage on which to use it.

It is understandable that principals and superintendents might be unschooled in constitutional law. But it is unforgivable that they’ve forgotten their Greek mythology.

Had they only remembered their seventh-grade lesson about the mythical Lernaen Hydra, Lenoir City administrators would have recognized that, when you cut off the head of an unflattering news story, two heads grow back.

Besides responding to the allegations of heavy-handed religious proselytizing in Myers’  original column — given a national audience on the News Sentinel‘s website — the district found itself defending its ignorance of basic First Amendment free-speech principles (like the prohibition against viewpoint discrimination).

Superintendent Miller’s hilarious-in-hindsight justification: The column would be “distracting from what we’re trying to do.”

The larger lesson for school administrators: In the 21st century, it is no more possible to censor the views of a smart, motivated young person than it is possible to hold back the setting sun or the ebbing tide. Doing so only makes you look foolish — or guilty.