By Brian J. Connor
It’s not every day that constitutional debates hit the local news. It is stranger still to witness two of these controversies within a few days of one another.
Wall Township and Morristown have both played host to interesting scandals of this type over the past week.
On Saturday, June 10, 2017, ABC-7 reported three cases of censorship in Wall Township High School’s yearbook, with the removal of right-wing iconography from two students’ pictures, and the unexplained absence of another student’s senior quote, which happened to be attributed to Donald Trump.
Following this development, the Wall Township School Board promptly suspended the responsible teacher “pending additional disciplinary action.”
It is clear that the board took the legally correct action, as this censorship lies in direct conflict with several landmark Supreme Court decisions.
In 1969, the high Court ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines that students’ First Amendment rights “do not end at the schoolhouse gates” and that any suppression of expression or speech must be supported with proof of “material and substantial interference” with the operation of the school.
Ironically enough, this censorship of the yearbook likely did more to disrupt school operations than the censored content ever could.
This story garnered national attention, and the school board quickly and decisively took appropriate action.
In stark contrast, a similar situation unfolded at Morristown High School. As reported by MorristownGreen.com, a high school junior was called into Principal Mark Manning’s office.
This meeting concerned the student’s recent submission to the school’s Art & Design Show: A five-foot tall graphic depiction of sitting president Donald Trump, stylized to resemble a pig.
While the school principal conceded that the work was “very well done,” he explained that the possible controversy surrounding the painting necessitated removal of the piece from the show.
The school has yet to take any corrective action in this case. Unfortunately for Morristown High, constitutional law appears to stand in opposition to the school’s ruling.
As a first step, we can look again at Tinker v. Des Moines, which established that students maintain their right to free speech even when they are at school. While Principal Manning may have alluded to the possibility of disruption of school operations, he censored the artwork before that potential disruption had the chance to be realized.
The argument that this artwork would have ignited some sort of civil unrest in the school is flimsy at best.
If we accept this reasoning, we have determined that the student in question had a constitutional right to free speech, and we can examine the main situation in which the government is permitted to restrict speech: Obscenity.
In 1973, the Court’s ruling in Miller v. California established that the government can restrict obscene, but not indecent, content.
To be determined obscene, the content in question must satisfy three conditions: 1) The average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient (obscene) interest; 2) The work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct, specifically defined by applicable state law; and 3) The work, taken as a whole, lacks serious artistic, political, or scientific value.
The first two conditions can be easily thrown out the window, as there is no sexual content in the piece. The third condition also can be fairly easily eliminated, as the piece was chosen for display at an art show, and clearly satirizes the actions of the president in an artistic manner.
It is reasonable that a high school administrator would seek to reduce controversy in order to stabilize the learning environment. It is unreasonable that an administrator would violate the First Amendment rights of one of his students in order to do so.
As Theodore Roosevelt once said, “To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”
Morristown High School should issue an apology to the student in question as well as the school community as a whole, and should display this piece in its rightful place at the school Art & Design Fair.
To do otherwise would demonstrate to students that their First Amendment rights are only upheld when it is in the convenient interest of school administrators to do so.
Brian J. Connor is a 2013 graduate of Morristown High School, a 2017 graduate of The College of New Jersey, and the 2017 recipient of the Dr. Daniel R. Hall Award for Excellence in Economics and Public Service. In his spare time, Brian enjoys rowing, running, and following politics, economics, and current events.