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President Donald Trump is in the thick of yet another high school free speech controversy.
A North Surry High School student made a joke about Trump during an improv club meeting on Wednesday, according to media reports. School officials call the joke “inappropriate” and “in poor taste” but won’t say why. An entire school district is scrambling to distance itself from the gag and the Surry County Sheriff’s Office is conducting a full-blown investigation.
While a First Amendment analysis is difficult without knowing exactly what was said, context clues suggest sweeping overreaction and a rush to unlawful government censorship, making this case similar to other North Carolina public school dust-ups over the 45th president.
For starters, why are sheriff’s deputies investigating a high-schooler’s improv act? Surry County Schools has consistently used the word “joke” to describe the student’s words. If the ad-libbed line was perceived as a threat, the U.S. Secret Service would be involved. Threatening the president is a federal crime, and county sheriffs don’t have jurisdiction in such matters. If it wasn’t a threat, it wasn’t illegal.
If the joke was sexually explicit or included vulgar language, it could have broken school rules — but that’s a determination for teachers and principals to make. There is no North Carolina law against telling bawdy jokes. The sheriff’s office is either in over its head or wading in the shallow waters of noncriminal school discipline where it doesn’t belong.
Authorities can’t use speech the U.S. Constitution clearly protects as a pretense for investigation because doing so creates a chilling effect that discourages others from speaking. “(G)overnmental inquiry alone trenches upon First Amendment rights,” federal District Judge Lawrence Whipple wrote in the 1978 Paton v. LaPrade case.
Equally concerning, the school district has consciously chosen to frame the issue around political speech. Surry County Schools didn’t say a student made a lewd joke or a profane joke, it said in a prepared, written statement that, “Regrettably, the performance included an inappropriate joke about the president.”
Was the gag “inappropriate” on its own, or was criticizing Trump what made it so?
Public schools can forbid profanity and obscenity, but students retain the expressive core of their First Amendment rights and school rules must be both viewpoint-neutral and content-neutral. Punishing students specifically for engaging in political criticism is unconstitutional and un-American.
“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 Supreme Court’s landmark Tinker v. Des Moines decision upholding students’ right to wear black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War.
People are allowed to make fun of the commander-in-chief. It’s North Carolina, not North Korea.
While a young Trump critic is under the government’s microscope this week, Trump supporters have found themselves in hot water in at least two of our state’s public high schools. Censorship is a threat to the president’s fans, not just his foes.
Cheerleaders at North Stanly High were admonished for holding a Trump campaign banner before an Aug. 30 football game. School officials told them they weren’t allowed to show support for the president and the North Carolina High School Athletic Association put the entire cheer squad on probation.
The school district and NCHSAA were wrong, and we said so. The punishments were flagrant free speech violations and the sports sanctioning body later lifted its suspension, likely in fear of a swift smackdown in federal court.
In October 2018, Harnett Central High School’s principal kicked a student out of the stands and sent him home for wearing a Trump T-shirt to a football game. As media coverage and public pressure intensified, Harnett County Schools reassigned the principal and affirmed students’ right to engage in political speech.
The First Amendment isn’t easily brushed aside and high school censors are almost always made to regret their heavy-handed haste. Surry County deputies and school officials need to close the book on the improv club kerfuffle, brush up on their constitutional law and — just maybe — learn how to take a joke.