Live Coverage: GBHS club considers legal action over possible poster censorship

Young Republicans told to take down posters regarding ‘economic freedom’ because they included references to ‘radical leftists’

This+is+one+of+the+posters+that+the+Granite+Bay+Republicans+club+put+up+around+campus.+Principal+Jennifer+Leighton+ordered+the+posters+removed+because+she+considered+them+to+be+inflammatory.

Special to GBT.org / THERESA LANDON

This is one of the posters that the Granite Bay Republicans club put up around campus. Principal Jennifer Leighton ordered the posters removed because she considered them to be inflammatory.

Students across the country rarely have the opportunity to take full advantage of their First Amendment rights and make their voices heard, but it’s been happening recently for conservative students at Granite Bay High.

But just how far do these First Amendment rights go for students? Where is the limit and who makes the call?

Recently the Granite Bay Republicans club hung up posters that voiced their political views against oppressive governments. However, on the same day they put up the posters, senior Jordan Greenfelder – the club vice president – was told by assistant principal Greg Sloan that the posters had to be removed.

“We put up posters because it was Freedom Week (and) we were sent posters regarding economic freedom,” Greenfelder said. “We were planning on speaking on it during lunch and after school as well as putting up the posters.”

According to Greenfelder, he and senior Nathan Wong, the club president, were taken out of class 20 minutes before the end of second period only to be told by Sloan that he considered the posters to be a form of hate speech.

“Because we were not talking about the benefits of our club, we couldn’t have (the posters) up,” Greenfelder said.

Greenfelder was told the posters fell under the Tinker v. Des Moines U.S. Supreme Court case, which ruled that free speech can only be restricted on a public campus when it interferes with a student’s ability to learn on a regular school day. Sloan argued the posters were inflammatory enough that they would interfere with student learning.

“These posters do not materially infringe on students’ learning,” Wong said. “In fact, these posters align with the GBHS mission statement, which is to provide different perspectives.”

These posters do not materially infringe on students’ learning. In fact, these posters align with the GBHS mission statement, which is to provide different perspectives.”

— Nathan Wong

Wong said he believes the crucial factor isn’t so much the left versus right politics of the situation as it is the potential violation of his club’s free speech rights.

“All of these perspectives need to blend together to create a new perspective, but what’s happening is our freedom of expression is being trampled upon, which isn’t right,” Wong said.

When Wong and Greenfelder finally met with principal Jennifer Leighton, she told them she considered the posters to be potentially hateful speech because they described opposition to “radical leftist” viewpoints.

“All flyers and posters need to be approved by the administration before posting on a school campus,” Leighton said in an email. “It is OK to run them past club advisers as extensions of administrators, so in this case if they had run them past Mr. (Brandon) Dell’Orto, I’m sure he would have told them they weren’t appropriate for the school setting.

Leighton told Wong and Greenfelder the language on the poster was inflammatory and could possibly infringe on the ability of some students to learn. However, Leighton confirmed the posters would not have been approved even if they had been submitted in advance. 

“Free speech isn’t quite the same for students on a public school campus as it is for adults in other environments,” Leighton said. “In other words, a school campus has to provide an environment where all feel accepted and safe.  Therefore, anything that is potentially offensive, inflammatory and/or likely to cause a disruption to the learning environment can be deemed inappropriate by administration.”

Leighton learned about the posters from Theresa Landon, a physiology teacher at GBHS. While walking to her second period class, a student pulled Landon aside, and Landon said she knew immediately that her student was uncomfortable. The student told Landon about the Republican Club’s poster showing the shoveling of skulls and connecting those deaths to “progressive social movements.”

This imagery made Landon’s student extremely uncomfortable, so Landon alerted Leighton.

“I found it inflamatory to talk about murder and then the images of the skulls, the graves, and the guy with the mask,” Landon said. “It was just very dark. It was alarming to me. I don’t know the intricacies of the policy (regarding the posters), which is why I passed it onto the principal (and assistant principals) to handle. … I knew they would know exactly what to do and trusted them to do that.”

Landon said she thought the posters sparked division on campus and therefore were disruptive to campus unity.

“We can communicate in a positive way instead … that’s what I’m hoping that maybe all the clubs on campus can learn from this,” Landon said. “Where we educate but we do it in a way that’s respectful (and) that we embrace Grizzly Pride when we make our posters.”

Landon said she dug further into the posters the Granite Bay Republicans club put up and noticed a common trend.

The posters were produced by the Young America’s Foundation and, according to Landon, they glorified Republican political figures while demonizing and using extremes to describe leftist viewpoints. Landon suspects that because Wong and Greenfelder are not promoting their own club with the posters, they could be unintentionally posting right-wing propaganda.

Wong and Greenfelder, however, don’t believe this is the issue. For them, it’s all about free speech.

Their primary goal is to learn more about their rights as American citizens and students, and then to exercise those rights. They said that if they are in the wrong, they will accept that and move on. Both Wong and Greenfelder said they are not trying to engage in Right Wing vs. Left Wing politics.

Advanced Placement U.S. Government teacher Jarrod Westberg has taken the initiative in helping them through this process. As a government teacher, Westberg said he is always happy to engage in political discourse. When two of his students came to him wondering what their rights were, he was happy to help.

“The decision-making process is very subjective,” Westberg admits. “It’ll be really tough to choose one (poster) over another.”

Anything that’s labeled disruptive to this school can be stopped by administration at any given time. It’s the law.”

— Jarrod Westberg

According to Westberg, when Wong and Greenfelder first explained the situation, they also mentioned that other posters in favor of stricter regulations for gun ownership had been taken down as well.

“The reality is that you don’t have complete free speech rights on campus,” Westberg said. “Anything that’s labeled as disruptive to this school can be stopped by administration at any given time. It’s the law.”

“(Wong and Greenfelder) just genuinely want to know if they’re being censored or not, and they care,” he added.

Wong and Greenfelder have contacted an attorney and are considering what possible legal actions they might pursue. On Nov. 20, Wong sent a Placer County Superior Court judge an email describing the situation. Wong said he has not yet gotten a reply, but he is determined to seek justice and not be restricted by what he sees as petty politics.

For Landon, though, the problem is the inflammatory nature of the posters, and whether they’re appropriate – in a culture that’s increasingly partisan, politicized and divided – for a high school campus.

“In this day and age, in this politically charged climate, we don’t need more things that are going to cause division,” Landon said. “There can be a different way and a better way in which to share and communicate information without getting super negative.”

Update 12/10/19: Greenfelder and Wong were originally told the posters had to be removed by assistant principal Greg Sloan. The story has been corrected.

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