By Dave Schwab
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a lawsuit against the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) stemming from a Feb. 15 incident in which La Jolla High School allegedly illegally painted out political messages created by Iranian-American students on campus senior benches supporting freedom for Iran.
The messages, painted by members of the school’s Persian Club, were promptly painted over by school administrators who deemed them to be inappropriate in an unapproved location.
A couple of days later La Jolla High students painted a similar but slightly different message on the benches: “Freedom for Iran and LJHS,” which, too, was whited-out.
Back in February, La Jolla High Principal Dana Shelburne defended blotting out political messages on senior benches noting, “Those benches are to carry positive, school-related messages — birthdays, athletic events, dances, the sad occasion when we lose a student — pertaining to campus. If it’s negative: We paint it out. If it doesn’t pertain to school or school functions: We paint it out.”
At that time, Shelburne noted there is an appropriate, designated spot elsewhere on campus for non-campus-related student self-expression: a bulletin board in the center of campus designated for that purpose.
David Blair-Loy, legal director for the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties, said his organization feels they have a strong case for infringement of civil liberties.
“Once you’ve opened this space for (free) speech, you cannot segregate one kind of speech (senior benches) from another (bulletin board),” he said. “It’s like saying, you can talk about politics on one side of the cafeteria, but not the other.”
Concerning whether students had a right to address politics in painting benches, Blair-Loy said, “This is America. If we don’t defend free speech here, where are we going to defend it? It’s sad it took students who came to this country from Iran to teach us what freedom of speech is about. We should be teaching students to celebrate freedom of speech.”
The ACLU spokesman said what La Jolla High students painted was in good taste adding it showed, “they care about their community, about the world.”
Blair-Loy said the ACLU would have preferred not to litigate, but added the school district’s "non-response" in not addressing issues raised in letters sent to them asking them to rethink their position left them no alternative.
Contending there is no established standard for determining what constitutes “positive messages” on the senior benches which students have been painting over for years, ACLU is seeking unspecified damages and wants the school to relinquish its prohibition against students expressing their freedom of speech on senior benches.
Shelburne deferred comment on the ACLU lawsuit to Lawrence Schoenke of SDUSD’s legal department, who did not immediately return a call.