Stop Whitewashing Free Speech at La Jolla High

SAN DIEGO – La Jolla High School illegally whitewashed political messages painted by concerned students on campus benches that have traditionally been open for free expression, the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties and Bostwick & Jassy LLP charged in a complaint filed today.

The “senior benches” on the LJHS campus are a traditional forum for student speech. The school has allowed students to paint messages on the benches about numerous and diverse topics, including Associated Student Body election slogans, support for presidential candidates, birthday wishes, football victories, and love notes. On February 15, 2011, the day after massive popular protests erupted in Iran, two LJHS students painted “Freedom for Iran” and “Down with Dictator” on the benches to express their support for freedom and democracy in Iran. As she wrote in an op-ed published by the San Diego Union-Tribune, an author of those messages came to the United States with her parents “to escape the oppression in Iran” and be “educated in an environment where freedom of expression was respected and valued.”

Unfortunately, the LJHS administration is not living up to that promise. It immediately whitewashed her messages and later declared that the benches are reserved only for “positive messages about LJHS students and school activities.” As argued by the ACLU and Bostwick & Jassy, “positive messages” is a vague and unconstitutional standard for curtailing student speech.

The administration also declared that students wishing to post any other messages on nearby bulletin boards must obtain prior approval from the administration, in clear violation of federal and state law, including Education Code section 48907, which is a landmark California law protecting freedom of speech for students.

“The law guarantees freedom of expression to California students,” said David Blair-Loy, legal director of the San Diego ACLU. “La Jolla High should be celebrating the commitment of its students to freedom and democracy, not clamping down on it.”

When Yumehiko Hoshijima, a graduating LJHS senior, stood up for freedom of speech by painting “Freedom for LJHS & Iran” and “Ed. Code 48907” on the benches, the administration whitewashed those messages as well and threatened disciplinary action “if inappropriate signs continue to appear on the benches.” LJHS Principal Dana Shelburne declared, “If we can’t figure it out, we paint it out.”

“La Jolla High School has allowed students to paint messages on these benches for years,” said Jean-Paul Jassy, partner in Bostwick & Jassy and an LJHS graduate (class of ’92). “Now, the school is turning its back on the tradition of free expression it used to uphold. Censorship like this is not what we should be teaching our students.”

“It is ironic that students advocating for the civil rights of citizens in an oppressive regime like Iran are having their own rights ignored here in the United States,” said Sarah Abshear, staff attorney of the San Diego ACLU.

On February 18, 2011, the San Diego ACLU sent a letter to the principal and San Diego Unified School District, seeking to resolve the matter without litigation. The District finally responded on the merits over two months later, refusing to acknowledge any problem and leaving no option but to litigate the case.

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Read the Complaint