A student club is suing its school, saying its pro-Palestinian views were censored

People flutter a Palestinian giant flag

People flutter a Palestinian giant flag during a demonstration in support of the Palestinian people and demanding a cease fire in Gaza, in Lisbon, Friday, Dec. 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

Students at a Washington, D.C., public school are suing their principal and the school district over the administration’s censorship of the Arab Student Union’s pro-Palestinian speech, according to the federal lawsuit filed by the the American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia.

The lawsuit argues that the Jackson-Reed High School students’ rights were violated “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.”

This lawsuit comes as students at university and college campuses across the country protest for an end to the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, which erupted after a Hamas-led attack on Oct. 7 that Israel says killed 1,200 people. More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed in the conflict, Gaza health officials say.

Representatives for Jackson-Reed High School or for the District of Columbia Public Schools didn’t respond to NPR’s request for comment.

The lawsuit alleges that the club was prevented from holding its Palestinian Culture Night in the way the students wanted, that they were barred from distributing a one-page “zine” that explained various Palestinian symbols and were not allowed to offer face paint “tattoos” or to distribute pro-Palestine stickers.

This case is similar to one from the Vietnam War era, said ACLU-D.C. Senior Counsel Art Spitzer.

In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of Tinker v. Des Moines that “made clear that high school students had a right to peacefully express their views about the war,” said Spitzer.

In 1965, a group of students in Des Moines decided to make a public showing of their support for a truce in the Vietnam war by wearing black arm bands. School administrators created a policy stating any student refusing to remove the armband would be suspended. On Dec. 16, 1965, two students, Mary Beth Tinker and Christopher Eckhardt, wore their armbands to school and were sent home. Their arguments prevailed with the Supreme Court holding that students did not lose their freedom of speech when they stepped onto school property.

That case “seems to me very analogous to the same rights that we’re trying to uphold now,” Spitzer said.

This lawsuit filed by the students in Washington, D.C., claims that school administration prevented the club from showing a documentary film during lunch called The Occupation of the American Mind that’s critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

The students said they sought to hold their Palestinian Culture Night back in January, but the event was removed from the school’s official calendar. Repeated attempts to get the event approved to be held at a later date, were rebuffed.

The students were eventually able to host it this Thursday, but Spitzer told NPR, “It was still not exactly the program they would have wanted. They tell me the school required them to submit for advanced clearance what books they were going to display on a table and what symbols they were going to display.”

The students are looking for a federal judge to tackle this case quickly, so they can still host the documentary screening before school ends for seniors on June 7.

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