La Jolla High benches become battleground for free speech

Image provided by students show the  bench after they had painted it and after it was painted over.  Photo: Courtesy
Image provided by students show the bench after they had painted it and after it was painted over. Photo: Courtesy

By Dave Schwab

Staff Writer

La Jolla High has its own free-speech movement going — at least in the eyes of some students.

It all started on Feb. 15 when concrete “senior” benches routinely painted by students conveying support for school “spirit” carried a sterner, more political message: support of freedom for Iran. The messages, painted by members of the school's Persian Club, were promptly painted over when by school administrators deemed them as inappropriate in an unapproved location.

Then, two days later students Wilson Mokiao and Yumehiko Hoshijima painted a similar but slightly different message on the benches: “Freedom for Iran and LJHS.” Those too were whited-out.

And then someone painted "USA," which Principal Dana Shelburne said he also had painted over in the name of fairness.

Mokiao and Hoshijima, in a press release they put out last week in which they were joined by other students, stated “The senior benches at La Jolla High School have always been an important message board for student life. … However, in a troubling turn of events, the administration at La Jolla High School has recently taken to moderating the bench’s messages. …

"California Education Code 48907 stipulates that California students may express themselves freely at school unless speech is ‘obscene, libelous, or slanderous,’" the release continued.  "We believe — although we do not have legal expertise — that the La Jolla High School administration’s actions are highly questionable given the protections guaranteed to students under state law.”

Shelburne said the situation is not about free speech, but that it stems more from a misunderstanding blown out of proportion rather than any real disagreement over students’ right to self-expression.

Shelburne said the purpose of senior benches is being misconstrued.

“Those benches are to carry positive, school-related messages — birthdays, athletic events, dances, the sad occasion when we lose a student — pertaining to campus,” he said. “If it’s negative: We paint it out. If it doesn’t pertain to school or school functions: We paint it out.”

Shelburne said there is an appropriate, designated spot elsewhere on campus for non-campus-related student self-expression.

“We have a bulletin board in the center of campus identified to be used if you want to make a poster or post anything,” he said. “The rules of posting are very liberal. If you want to say “Free Iran, down with the dictator” — we’ve got a spot for it.”

On Friday, he said, a student did just that, posting "Free Iran," although it was done on the back of an ASB announcement.

A notice was sent to all students reminding them about the policy. He said that if inappropriate signs continue to appear on the benches, disciplinary action will be taken.

Mokiao and Hoshijima's release raised other isssues: “A political bulletin board is by no means equal to the senior benches as an alternative medium of expression. No public announcement by the school or its administration as to the limitations of the benches or the bulletin boards was made prior to the incidents.”

By Feb. 17, a Facebook page "LJHS Freedom of Speech" carried photos of the benches and a message saying "The administration at LJHS has violated the students' freedom of speech. The message 'Freedom For Iran' is a call for awareness, 'Freedom For LJHS' is a demand for our rights."

   
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