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Arab Student Union accuses Brown, DC of censorship in new lawsuit

Eli Schwartz
BREAKING NEWS – A group dances at Palestinian culture night in the atrium hosted by the Arab Student Union. The event took place the night after the ASU filed a lawsuit against Principal Brown and the city.

Jackson-Reed’s Arab Student Union filed a lawsuit in federal court last Wednesday accusing Principal Sah Brown and the District of Columbia of censoring pro-Palestinian speech, including the school’s decision to bar the ASU from showing a documentary film and holding a culture night.

The lawsuit claims that these actions, and others since the Israel-Gaza War began in October, violated the students’ First Amendment rights. The complaint was filed on behalf of the ASU by the American Civil Liberties Union, a nonprofit legal organization whose objective is to protect the constitutional rights of Americans. 

The lawsuit also cites that the administration’s actions violate The Equal Access Act, which prohibits public schools from discriminating against students who wish to conduct a meeting on the basis of religious, political, or philosophical beliefs.

In an interview with the Beacon, ACLU attorney Arthur Spitzer said the lawsuit “is about asking a judge to order the school to let the Arab Student Union engage in the activities that they have been trying to engage in.” JR, he said, should “treat the Arab Student Union the same as it treats other student clubs—same procedures, same rules.” The ASU “shouldn’t be singled out for censorship in a way that other clubs are not,” Spitzer said.

An ASU member, who asked not to be named, told the Beacon, “We love Jackson-Reed, and we don’t want to make it look bad, but we just want people who have been trying to silence us to be held accountable.”

The ASU will ask the court to schedule a public hearing on the lawsuit in early May. It also requested that the court force JR to allow the ASU to show the 2016 documentary, The Occupation of the American Mind, by June 7, the last day of school for seniors; allow the ASU to hold a Palestinian Culture Night; and allow students to distribute content about Palestine on school premises, all of which the ASU is claiming they have been prohibited from doing for unjust reasons.

“For the past four months, [the ASU] and its members have been trying to engage in expressive activities at the high school … but have been stopped at every turn by the school administration,” the lawsuit states. “Their speech has been suppressed because the school does not want their viewpoint—which concerns the ongoing war in Gaza and its effects on the Palestinian people—to be heard.”

“I am aware of the allegations that have been made, and I support our students in their right to advocate for themselves,” Brown told the Beacon. He said he would comment further at a later date. A DCPS spokesperson has not responded to a request for comment. 

This lawsuit comes at a time where acts of defiance continue to arise all over the country on college campuses such as Columbia University, University of Southern California, and Yale University. As students continue to protest, administrations are faced with the balancing act of maintaining freedom of speech and expression of protest, and preserving peace and stability on campus.

“In other states, other schools are also facing censorship. In terms of the broader issue it’s going to be very important to have this lawsuit,” said a member of the ASU.

Spitzer explained schools can prevent student speech on two grounds: the risk of substantial disruption, such as mass walkouts and fights, and interference with the rights of other students. The lawsuit says that the defendants “have never asserted that they anticipate disruption” if the ASU held its activities. Spitzer also said that the planned events would not have intruded on other students because “all of these activities were voluntary for people to get involved.”

When asked about the lawsuit, 11th grade counselor Patrice Maites said, “I was taken aback by the fact that they have a lawsuit.” She also expressed, “I think the language of the lawsuit is troubling to me. It makes me feel like I’m not welcome in my own building by this particular lawsuit.”

When asked about his reaction to the ASU filing, senior August Taylor said “I think they are standing on solid ground for the basis of their argument, at some point it is getting in the way of their free speech. But I don’t know if it’s worth going to court about it.”

Junior Maya Knoll said, “The school would not even allow the Israeli students to form an Israel club, so it is absurd for the Arab Student Union to claim that they are the ones who are being censored.”

Junior Kaianna Higa added, “I thought it was deserved,” and that administration has been “pushing a Pro-Israel agenda.” 

A junior wishing to stay anonymous continued “I personally believe it’s kind of crazy.”

Freshman Madeline Andrews said “[The ASU] has been taking a stand and if this is what they’ve decided they need to do to make an impact, then I fully support them in that.” 

Eduardo Canedo, social studies teacher at JR emphasized the importance of the lawsuit in a broader context of high school students’ rights. “[the lawsuit] serves as a reminder across the country that there is a lot that they can do in terms of controlling student behavior, but that there’s a limit to interfering with student political speech rights.”

The lawsuit does not seek any financial damages beyond payment of attorney’s fees.

Spitzer added, “The only safe answer for everybody is that everybody’s speech has to be protected.” 

Simon Holland and Lila Chesser contributed to this story. This article is still developing. Updates will be posted on the Jackson-Reed Beacon website as they become available.

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    Mary Beth TinkerMay 14, 2024 at 10:05 pm

    Thank you for a great article on the ASU lawsuit filed by the ACLU’s lawyer, Art Spitzer. I support the students’ freedom of speech & activism, and thoroughly enjoyed Palestine Culture Night. The genocide in Gaza must stop immediately, and I’m glad students are saying so. We cannot stand by to watch the utter demolition of Gaza & its people – the horrifyng environmental destruction, famine, schools and universities destroyed, and most housing. The Israeli army is daily sending children & their families to their graves- even yesterday- under the rubble of their houses. There can be no justification for such cruel, illegal behavior, funded by US taxpayers. I applaud students who insist on their rights, and use them to speak up!