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ACLU Urges Utica School to Rescind Ban on Political Signs at Student Protests and to Apologize to Suspended Gun Reform Advocates

April 16, 2018

Today the ACLU of Michigan sent a letter to Utica Academy for International Studies urging school officials to rescind a rule barring students from holding “political” signs during demonstrations against gun violence. The letter also encourages the principal to apologize to students who were suspended after displaying gun reform signs at the March 14 protest, and to honor students’ free speech rights during future protests.

Read the letter.

 “School officials should be praising, not punishing, students for engaging in the democratic process and seeking reform following the massacre of their peers in Florida,” said Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU of Michigan. “It’s hard to imagine a more unconstitutional school rule than one that punishes students for displaying political signs during demonstrations.”

Leading up to the national student walkout on March 14, the Utica Academy administration sent a letter to students setting forth rules for the event, including pre-approved chants, slogans and posters. The letter said signs with alternative messages had to be approved by school officials and that “NO political messages will be allowed/approved.” The letter said that any students violating these rules could “face disciplinary action.”

A handful of students peacefully carried signs advocating gun control that had not been pre-approved. One sign, carried by junior Meghan Biernat, said, “Thoughts & Prayers Don’t Save Lives. Gun Reform Will.” Another sign, carried by junior Elizabeth Voytas, urged students to call U.S. Senators Stabenow and Peters and gave their phone numbers.  The school suspended Biernat, Voytas and several other students who did not conform to the protest rules.   

"Students across the country are making a difference by standing up and demanding action to prevent more mass shootings,” said Ms. Biernat. “We have a right to demand gun reform without school administrators censoring our speech and sanitizing our protests. Although our school mantra is about creating leaders, the administration made it clear when they suspended us that they would rather mold the student body into sheep. We hope the school does the right thing and repeals the ban on political signs before Friday's protest."

The ACLU letter reminded school officials that nearly 50 years ago, Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case of Tinker v. Des Moines School District that students don’t “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” The decision established that students were free to engage in political speech, even if controversial, so long as it did not cause a “substantial or material disruption.”

Although the Utica Academy administration eventually removed the suspensions from the records of the suspended students, the ACLU letter states that the suspensions have had a chilling effect on freedom of expression at the school. As a remedy, the letter urges the administration to apologize to the suspended students, rescind the no-political speech rule, and honor the constitutional rights of all students at protests in the future. The next national school day of action to prevent gun violence is this Friday, the anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre.

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