La Jolla High bench controversy gets a day in court

The benches after they were painted over.   Photo: Courtesy
The benches after they were painted over. Photo: Courtesy

By Dave Schwab

Staff Writer

The San Diego Unified School District and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are headed for a showdown in court over whether senior benches on the La Jolla High School campus should be declared an open forum for free speech or can be restricted to school-related-only messages.

The issue came to a head last week after LJHS principal Dana Shelburne discussed what to do about the three controversial “paintable” senior benches with the Associated Student Body (ASB) officers and adviser, and then decided to have them temporarily removed and stored.

A hearing will be held Thursday morning on whether to issue a temporary restraining order in the matter.

But district Superintendent Bill Kowba intervened on Saturday, decreeing the benches would remain until a lawsuit brought against the district by the ACLU is resolved.

“We’ve simply said those benches are for school spirit — it has nothing to do with the message, simply where you place it,” said Shelburne. “Students have been invited to put the exact same message on a giant bulletin board, much larger than the benches, but did not avail themselves of that opportunity.”

Jess Jollett, communications manager for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial counties, said in an e-mail, “The senior benches have been a cherished tradition of the LJHS community for decades and a forum for a wide variety of student speech. The principal’s threatened removal of the benches comes despite a hearing on (June 2) to request a temporary restraining order against further censorship of the benches.”

The ACLU contends Shelburne appeared to act “in retaliation for the student speech and lawsuit and demonstrate hostility to the state’s free speech protections … Those state law provisions protect student speech that is not ‘obscene, libelous or slanderous.’ ”

David Blair-Loy, legal director at the San Diego ACLU, said before the removal was delayed the move “is unconscionable” and added, “The proper way to resolve these issues is in court, not with a bulldozer. California has landmark law protecting student speech that has worked well for decades.”

The La Jolla High bench controversy goes back to 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.

“The issue is whether or not to have a clearly identified, free-speech forum, which we have,” said Shelburne. “And at the same time, have a set of benches which are restricted to something that would be positive, school-related messages. Can the two coexist? Or does allowing the students, without any preview by me, does that make those benches an additional open forum? I think that’s what’s to be determined.”



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