Students in a pro-life group at Wilson High School in Tacoma, Wash., allege that administrators barred them from putting up posters, but the school steadfastly denies the allegations, saying that there has been no such censorship.
“Any allegation that this group was not allowed to display posters at any point is false, as is any allegation that they have been denied the ability to put up posters that express a message, or a controversial message,” Shannon McMinimee, general counsel for the Tacoma Public Schools tells National Review Online. McMinimee says the school even allowed posters from the group that others would find controversial or offensive, including posters featuring fetuses and embryos.
Wilson Students for Life, an affiliate of Students for Life of America, claims administrators said the displays violated school policy that posters cannot offend staff or students, cannot put down others with different opinions, and are usually meant to advertise for meetings and events.
The first poster read “Since Roe v. Wade 1/3 of our generation has been aborted” and featured a picture of a baby on a milk-carton with the word “missing.”
The second poster displayed only a quote from Ronald Reagan that said, “I’ve noticed that everyone who is for abortion is already born.”
The Thomas More Society, a public interest law firm representing Wilson Students for Life, said in a letter to the school that the administration’s action violated the students’ free speech rights and was discriminatory because other groups were not so barred. For example, the school’s Gay Student Alliance (GSA) was allowed to put up a poster depicting various combinations of male and female symbols in math equations that all equal a “heart” and then a line saying “Love has no limits.”
“The GSA poster was an advocacy message put up on campus, and our clients have the same right to forward an advocacy message on a subject of public concern,” Thomas More Society senior counsel Peter Breen tells me. “We aren’t looking for the GSA to be restricted in speech, we want to see the pro-life message allowed.”
But the school tells National Review Online that the posters in question were taken down only after being put up without permission.
Breen has a different story. “Either the schools’ general counsel has not talked with the administrators at all, or something else, but her story doesn’t comport at all with the students’ experience,” he says.
Breen tells National Review Online that the students had contacted the administration to see if the two posters were acceptable, and the administration later told the students that the district had rejected the posters. “So the claim that the posters never went through an approval process rings hollow,” he says.
Though McMinimee said she has tried to contact the Thomas More Society multiple times regarding the letter sent to the school, Breen says they have not received any communications from her. “I have checked with every single member of my staff. There have been no calls, no emails, and no faxes to our office as far as we can tell,” he says. The Thomas More society only found out about the information McMinimee gave National Review Online through the media, he adds.
“The real story is that there was a serious restriction of free speech rights that is illegal under federal statute and the United States Constitution,” Breen says. “If the general counsel of Tacoma Washington schools wants to remedy these issues, we are certainly willing to talk.”
Barring that resolution, Breen says the Thomas More Society is “fully equipped to take further steps toward legal action if necessary.”
— Alec Torres is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.