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Gagging students but not requiring masks

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by Jan Ewell, MJE

Hannah Watters, 15, suspended for five days, Wed. Aug. 5, for tweeting pictures of mostly maskless students in a crowded hallway at North Paulding High in Dallas, Ga, about an hour outside of Atlanta, is free to return to school Monday, Aug. 10.

Friday, Aug. 7, she tweeted, “My school called and they have deleted my suspension.” She added, “To be 100 percent clear, I can go back to school on Monday.” 

According to The Washington Post, county schools superintendent, Brian Otott, had acknowledged the images “didn’t look good,” but suggested they lacked context at the 2,000-student high school where masks were “a personal choice.”

Georgia had 200,000 recorded cases of Covid-19 as of Wednesday. Thursday the state death toll from the disease passed 4,000.

Hannah was suspended for violating the student code of conduct, which states students may not use social media during the day and they may not make recordings without permission of an administrator.

“The principal just said that they were very sorry for any negative attention that this has brought upon her,” The Post quoted her mother, adding ” that in the future they would like for her to come to the administration with any safety concerns.”

If all students who use social media during the school day receive five-day suspensions, even the students who post pictures of yummy lunches or of the morning Pledge of Allegiance, then the school probably did not violate Hannah’s rights. 

But if only certain types of speech—or pictures—warrant such severe punishment, then the policy is not content-neutral and is meant to stop only certain types of speech, in this case, speech that does not make the school look good.  

Likewise the policy that forbids photography would need to be content neutral to be constitutional — even selfies and buddy pic would need to receive five-day suspensions.

But even if content neutral, a policy forbidding photography is questionable. Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas wrote in 1969 in Tinker v. Des Moines that neither students nor teachers “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” 

True, in places where students have a reasonable expectation of privacy, locker rooms, counselors’ offices, even classrooms, photography can be an invasion of privacy, and a school code of conduct may well forbid it. Or if the photographer substantially disrupted learning, that could also be forbidden. But a crowded hallway is a public space with no expectation of privacy, and students have the right to record the conditions there. 

Perhaps Superintendent Otott may wish to review Justice Fortas’s opinion, where he wrote, “In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students . . . are possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect . . .  In the absence of a specific showing of constitutionally valid reasons to regulate their speech, students are entitled to freedom of expression of their views.”

At North Paulding High School, masks may be “a personal choice,” but so is documenting conditions there. 

Hannah Watters was well within her rights.

Additional resources:
Georgia school reverses suspension of teen who shared viral photo hallway packed with students
Viral photo of crowded Georgia high school hallway lacks context, superintendent says
SPLC condemns the suspension of Georgia students for posting photos of their crowded school during COVID-19
SPLC, joined by 28 orgs and individuals, sends letter of concern to N. Paulding High School admin and school board over free speech restrictions
Georgia COVID-19 deaths surpass 4,000 – Fox5 Atlanta

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