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D.C. high school bans student club from screening documentary critical of Israel

The school’s principal claimed the movie may ‘provoke strong emotional responses,’ but K-12 administrators can’t hit pause on the First Amendment.
Film reel and padlock on a yellow background

Over the past few months, FIRE has battled a surge in censorship of speech about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The speech controversies often play out on college campuses. But as our latest case shows, high school students are also encountering resistance from censorial administrators.

In December, a public high school in Washington, D.C., canceled one student group’s plan to screen a documentary about Israel during a lunchtime meeting. The reason? The event could “provoke strong emotional responses” and “cause some significant division” among the student body. 

There’s just one problem. Speculation that a club’s film screening might upset other students isn’t a lawful reason to censor it. 

Now, FIRE and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee are calling on Jackson-Reed High School to respect the First Amendment rights of Arab Student Union members and allow the club’s screening to go forward. 

The show doesn’t go on

The Arab Student Union is a recognized student organization at Jackson-Reed High School that describes itself as “a safe space for Arab students and their allies, as well as a forum for discussion of issues facing the Middle East and its diaspora.” In December, members of the group sought to show the documentary “The Occupation of the American Mind” and host a discussion about the film. The documentary’s creators say it exposes the “devastatingly effective public relations war that Israel and right-wing pro-Israel advocacy groups have been waging for decades in the US.” The film is narrated by former Pink Floyd frontman and prominent pro-Palestinian activist Roger Waters.

Students posted flyers advertising the event on Dec. 7. The next day, a school administrator told ASU’s teacher sponsor that the school took them down because the event wasn’t approved. The school’s principal, Sah Brown, then told the sponsor he wouldn’t allow the screening to take place because the “content and individuals associated with the film may provoke strong emotional responses or polarizing views within our diverse school community.” 

Brown also imposed a new requirement that ASU obtain his approval for any other “resources” it wishes to use.

“Hey, principal, leave them kids alone!”

A couple days later, an ASU student started a petition urging the school to allow the club to show the film. Brown reacted by assuring the school community the school had “taken measures to halt the dissemination” of the petition and other online communications about the decision to cancel the event.

Brown then met with ASU students to explain his decision. He said the film contained imagery that he was “hesitant to put before our students” and that the film may “cause a further divide among our student body.” He specifically took issue with Waters’ association with the film, expressing concern that Waters’ views are “not aligned to what we as an organization and what we believe are going to be productive views.” 

Ultimately, Brown concluded he would not “feel comfortable associating a school-related program with a film that can cause some significant division.” During the conversation (which the students recorded with Brown’s consent), he also off-handedly mentioned he had denied official recognition to other student groups because he disapproved of their views.

We don’t need no thought control

Contrary to what Jackson-Reed’s principal thinks, the school can’t ban ASU from showing a documentary based on mere disapproval of the views the film presents. Nor can it suppress criticism of its decision or refuse to recognize other groups based on their views.

As the Supreme Court made clear over 50 years ago in Tinker v. Des Moines, public school students do not shed their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate. Administrators must have a constitutionally valid reason to restrict student speech — and “mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint” isn’t one of them.

The Student Bill of Rights codified in D.C. law further bolsters the ASU members’ right to show the documentary, guaranteeing every public school student the “right to exercise his or her constitutional rights of free speech, assembly, and expression without prior restraint, so long as the exercise of these rights does not substantially interfere with the rights of others.” Those rights include “[o]rganizing and participating in political and social organizations.”

While the Israel-Hamas conflict undoubtedly is a sensitive issue that elicits strong feelings, students retain their rights to discuss it and express their views.

As a chorus of secondary school students sang in one of Pink Floyd’s greatest hits, “We don’t need no thought control.”

To be sure, under Tinker, public schools have the authority to regulate student speech that substantially disrupts school activities, but they need to show more than speculative fear of disruption. There is no evidence that allowing ASU’s event to go forward would have caused any disruption, much less a substantial one. 

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Schools have more discretion to regulate “school-sponsored” student speech, like a student newspaper produced as part of a journalism class. But under both the First Amendment and the federal Equal Access Act, that standard doesn’t apply to student-run extracurricular clubs like ASU, even if a teacher monitors the club’s activities in a custodial role. Once a school opens its facilities for use by student-run clubs, it creates a public forum in which viewpoint discrimination is forbidden. “Substantial disruption” remains the applicable standard for regulating ASU’s expressive activity.

Jackson-Reed is also flouting the First Amendment’s bar on prior restraint by requiring ASU to submit any other “resources” it wishes to use for preapproval to ensure they don’t contain problematic views. Imposing this special administrative burden on ASU because of its choice of documentary only compounds the unlawful viewpoint discrimination.

The administration’s actions are unconstitutional and misguided. Students are already aware of the conflict in the Middle East, and they have opinions on it. If tensions are running high, trying to sweep the problem under the rug through censorship won’t help. As FIRE and ADC said in our letter to the school:

To the extent the issue is polarizing the student body, facilitating dialogue “where all voices are heard and respected,” as ASU intended, may actually reduce tension by encouraging students to listen to each other and gain a deeper understanding of their classmates’ perspectives. Stifling student speech, on the other hand, is likely to inflame tensions.… While the Israel-Hamas conflict undoubtedly is a sensitive issue that elicits strong feelings, students retain their rights to discuss it and express their views.

Preparing students for the road ahead

FIRE and ADC urge Jackson-Reed High School to fulfill its First Amendment obligations by allowing ASU to screen the documentary and pledging not to discriminate against or punish any students or student groups based on their views. 

At its best, America’s K-12 education system equips students to navigate a complicated, messy world full of conflicting values and beliefs. Blocking discussion on sensitive topics does little to prepare students for life outside the schoolhouse gate. 

To paraphrase Roger Waters, “Hey, principal, leave them kids alone!”

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