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Legal scholars are blowing the whistle on a North Carolina school district and the state’s high school sports sanctioning body following a free speech controversy.
The North Carolina High School Athletic Association placed North Stanly High School’s cheerleading squad on probation after some of its members posed with a banner promoting President Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection bid before the Aug. 30 football game, the Stanly News & Press reported. Someone shared a picture of the teen Trump supporters on Facebook and the image went viral.
Both Stanly County Schools and the NCHSAA said their rules prohibit political campaigning. While the teens weren’t suspended or barred from participating in cheers, school administrators and athletics officials have warned that stumping for Trump — or any other candidate — isn’t allowed. Trouble is, they’re flat-out wrong.
“As the representative of Stanly County, I am appalled these students are being punished for exercising their First Amendment right to free speech,” U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson, R-Concord, wrote in a Sept. 17 letter to NCHSAA Commissioner Que Tucker.
The congressman is correct. High school students cannot be disciplined for supporting a political candidate. We discussed the incident with Ken Paulson, director of the nonpartisan Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University.
“It’s a matter of political speech,” Paulson said. “The Supreme Court ruled decisively that unless the school can establish a substantial disruption of the educational process, the students have every right to express themselves. I cannot fathom how the association can limit the free speech of these students prior to any competition simply because they’re in uniform. That, to me, is indefensible.”
In 1969, the high court upheld siblings John and Mary Beth Tinker’s right to wear black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War at their public high school. The landmark Tinker v. Des Moines ruling has since shielded millions of American schoolchildren from censorship.
“It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” Justice Abe Fortas wrote in the 7-2 majority opinion.
The athletic association placed the cheerleading squad on probation for “behavior or action that is against NCHSAA Handbook policy or contrary to expectations of sportsmanship and proper behavior.”
If expressing support for a political officeholder or candidate is really against the rules, then the rules are unconstitutional and must be changed.
Supporters of the banner ban point out that the North Carolina High School Athletic Association is a nonprofit organization rather than a government agency. But that doesn’t allow it to restrict student-athletes’ speech in ways a public school cannot. After all, no one would argue the NCHSAA, as a private group, is immune from Title IX requirements to ensure female athletes receive treatment equal to that of their male counterparts.
“Honestly, this is not a close call,” Paulson said. “The First Amendment applies. This is a public facility and the competition is being overseen by a body that is subcontracted by the state. This is public action.”
It’s not the first high school Trump kerfuffle in our state to make national news. In October 2018, Harnett Central High School’s principal kicked a student out of a football game for wearing a Trump T-shirt. Following a swift backlash, Harnett County Schools apologized, moved the offending principal to another school and affirmed students’ right to express political messages.
The NCHSAA, however, is refusing to admit it made the wrong call. That should concern administrators, teachers, parents and students in all 100 North Carolina counties where the association oversees high school sports. If censorship can happen in Stanly County, it can happen here.
Commissioner Tucker says the “probation” status is merely a warning and the North Stanly cheerleaders haven’t suffered any real consequences over the Trump banner. Paulson doesn’t buy that.
“In the parlance of higher education, probation has a meaning,” he explained. “They are punishing these cheerleaders for doing absolutely nothing wrong.”
We call on the NCHSAA to immediately rescind the team’s probation designation, issue a public apology and announce that it will no longer interfere with student-athletes’ political speech.
An athletic association rulebook will never supersede the Bill of Rights. Correct the mistake now, Commissioner Tucker, or face the music in federal court.