News of the weird: Censorship comes from all over

It was a typical last day of classes at Summerville High School in Tuolumne, Calif., for sophomore Chiara Gustafson.

She went from class to class turning in final assignments and counting down the hours until summer vacation. Gustafson submitted her final article, "Wrestling Gay," a satire about wrestlers being gay, in her journalism class. The assignment was to create several "spoof" editions of the newspaper, the Bear Tracks — but when the finished products reached the hands of administrators, it was no laughing matter.

"What I wrote about the wrestlers being gay, obviously it was supposed to be a joke," Gustafson said. "That was the whole point."

When Gustafson arrived home from her last day of sophomore year, her mother said, the administration called home to say Gustafson was going to be punished for writing the article.

"I was shocked," Gustafson said. "I'm in trouble for what I did in class."

The students in the class faced suspension, but were permitted to complete community service instead. Student editors were given 20 hours of community service, and writers were punished based on how administrators gauged the severity of their articles. Gustafson served eight hours of community service.

The spoof editions were never intended to be distributed and were merely a class project. School officials found out about the satire articles from students outside of the journalism class who had one of the assignments and brought it to the administration.

Adam Kissel, director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), said the impetus for censorship typically comes from administrators rather than students.

"When a student wants to censor, they can act illegally to tear down a poster or to steal newspapers, but more often, if a student wants something censored, they'll go to the administration and try to get the administration to do it," Kissel said. "And all too often, the administration complies."

Censorship or oversight of student publications typically stems from school policies or directives. School boards nationwide impose regulations like prior review of content before publication, but cases involving students' rights to expression go beyond the censorship of student media. From wearing a T-shirt supporting gay rights to keeping a profane bumper sticker on the back of a truck, 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't threatening anyone."

As the Gustafson case illustrates, censorship of student speech goes beyond the pages of student publications. District and federal courts nationwide have heard cases involving students who claimed their right to free expression was violated 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 student had the right to wear a T-shirt with a picture of then-President George W. Bush and a caption reading "International Terrorist." The student filed the lawsuit after administrators asked him to turn the shirt inside-out or go home from school. The student went home.

In 2002, a federal district court in Massachusetts ruled that students at Westfield High School had the right to distribute candy canes that included a reminder about the school's Bible club meeting and a scripture verse. The club members served a one-day suspension after distributing the candy canes because the principal believed that others could deem the message offensive.

Kissel said that even since the Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District decision, which said that administrators do not have the authority to stifle student speech unless it is disruptive to the educational process, the limits of free speech at the high school level are unclear.

"We don't really know what the limits of freedom of speech are for high school students for sure," Kissel said. "You still get due process as a high school student. You still need to have a certain amount of notice that certain types of activities are banned, especially when it comes to your 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 suspended for profane bumper stickers on her truck. One sticker, which read, "I fucked your boyfriend," was on Megan White's truck for more than a year before the school administration raised the issue.

After administrators asked White to remove the sticker, she added a second one to the truck, which read, "Go fuck yourself." She was suspended after refusing to remove both stickers.

"It clearly was not interfering with the educational mission of the school," said Brian Pickett, Youth Programs Coordinator for the National Coalition Against Censorship, who advocated on behalf of White. "We felt like the school was overstepping the bounds of its authority by requiring her to remove it from the car."

White eventually complied with the administration's request to cover the 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 message to court – and won.

Heather Gillman filed a lawsuit against the School Board of Holmes County after then-Principal David Davis prohibited students from wearing clothing, stickers and buttons supporting gay rights.

According to court documents, Davis told a senior student that homosexuality 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 wearing rainbows and pink triangles, writing "Gay Pride" or "GP"

on their bodies, and wearing clothing with slogans like "Gay? Fine By Me," "I'm Straight, But I Vote Pro-Gay," and "God Loves Me Just the Way I Am."

Davis suspended 11 students, including Gillman's cousin, after the teenagers were questioned about their sexual orientation.

Gillman won the lawsuit, and U.S. District Judge Richard Smoak wrote in the opinion that "Davis embarked on what can only be characterized as a 'witch hunt' to identify students who were homosexual and their supporters."

The court ruled that the students' rights were violated, which Pickett said is an issue among administrators.

"They may choose not to respect a student's rights, but that doesn't take those rights away from the student." Pickett said.

Gustafson and her classmates at Summerville are entitled to rights as students, but she said that now, almost one year after the incident, the issue is still not resolved. The journalism program at Summerville High School was canceled because of the incident, and it is uncertain whether the class will be offered 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 one really 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 like these to prevent censorship in the future, especially in these unique forms.

"Even though in this go-around they chose not to respect the students' rights to free expression in this way ... maybe the next time around, the kind of institutional memory of having to deal with this and being challenged by some outside voices will perhaps influence their decisions," Pickett said, "How realistic that is, I don't know, but one hopes."

reports, Spring 2009