The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) is deeply concerned to learn that a student’s poster was removed from a display at Hillsborough Middle School in New Jersey because of apparent disagreement with the political views it expressed. This censorship of student expression based purely on dislike of its viewpoint is inconsistent with freedom of expression principles and violates the public school’s First Amendment obligations. The district must return the poster to public display, apologize to the student and take steps to ensure that similar acts of censorship do not occur in the future.
The student’s poster depicted a raised fist labeled “Black Lives Matter” superimposed over the names of individuals who were victims of police violence along with the caption, “Stop Police Brutality Now.” The poster was reportedly one item in a larger display of items reflecting Black culture, art, history, and experience with oppression (i.e., slavery, segregation, civil rights movement, etc.). The display was assembled by a recognized student group at the school.
According to media reports, the board member who complained about the poster suggested that, “We don’t need to give a view. We need to give both opposing views and let our young students and let our children make the decisions for themselves.” The poster in question was, in fact, a student’s work. Whether or not board members agree with students’ viewpoint should not be allowed to determine what student art or student work is permitted to be publicly displayed.
The removal and possible destruction of the students’ work raises serious First Amendment concerns. Our courts have time and again reaffirmed that the First Amendment prohibits public school officials from censoring student speech, including student artistic expression, merely because they find it offensive or provocative. Mere disagreement with student speech does not meet the standard for removal established more than fifty years ago in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District and recently reconfirmed inMahanoy Area Sch. Dist. v. B. L. The student-created poster would almost certainly not be considered school-sponsored speech. Even if it was, its removal was improper because, as affirmed in both Hazelwood Sch. Dist. v. Kuhlmeier and Collins v. Putt, schools may not censor school-sponsored speech unless it poses legitimate pedagogical concerns. Censoring student speech because some people disagree with the political views expressed does not meet that standard.
**Note: Header image for reference only, not an image of the student poster in question.
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