Neutralized speech at school
Utah high school censors student organization for insulting socialism
A national religious liberty and free speech law firm intervened earlier this month on behalf of students at a Utah high school after school officials attempted to shut down an event over an unpopular message.
According to the letter sent by Alliance Defending Freedom, an assistant principal at Salt Lake City’s Copper Hills High School pulled the plug on the event held by a student chapter of Turning Point USA (TPUSA) after students displayed a sign reading “Socialism Sucks.” Administrators cut the event short even though the club received permission to set up a table to promote the group during lunch because they said it didn’t present “both sides,” ADF said.
Students were then escorted to the principal’s office. Elizabeth Anderson, TPUSA chapter secretary, told America’s Voice that she felt administrators treated them like criminals. Principal Bryan Veazie informed the students their posters on socialism did not foster a “welcome, safe, and comfortable environment.”
A recording of the interaction shows Veazie telling students there was no problem with them supporting capitalism. “But in supporting and promoting capitalism, we don’t have the right to defame and to insult other forms of government,” he said. “Because it’s within the confines of a high school with a limited open forum … we have to be as neutral as we possibly can.”
According to the student speech rules set by the Utah State Board of Education, educators may only censor student speech outside of the classroom if it “unreasonably interferes with the ability of school officials to maintain order and discipline” or if a student’s language directly promotes “the actual endangering of a person or property.”
ADF contends the school has discriminated against the club because of its political affiliation, noting that TPUSA students peacefully manned their table and administrators allow other student organizations to share opinions freely. Anderson said that she now regularly receives messages from peers on social media calling her “racist,” “homophobic,” “piece-of-trash,” and “not worth life.”
Copper Hills’ school district made headlines earlier this year by granting students’ requests to wear cultural regalia during graduation ceremonies. But the board’s first vice president, Bryce Dunford, expressed concern over giving all students the right to alter their graduation attire: “I do believe there are people who would take that right of free speech and do something hurtful.”
Turning Point frequently faces public backlash because of its conservative stances. Less than a year ago, Emerson College suspended TPUSA from campus and launched an investigation after students handed out satirical stickers criticizing the Chinese government. In 2017, TPUSA sued Arkansas State University for discrimination and violating the organization’s free speech rights. As a result, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed the FORUM Act into law, protecting student speech at all state-funded universities.
Matthew Parkinson, Copper Hills TPUSA chapter president, explained, “We’re still told we can’t hand out any poster that says ‘socialism sucks,’ and we’re also not allowed to basically say anything defamatory about socialism.”
ADF has asked school officials to let the group operate under its full name with full speech rights no later than June 24. Attorneys told the school they would advise the students of other legal avenues for relief should their request be denied.
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