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Mich. ACLU calls on suburban Detroit public school to end ban on political signs at student protests

Courtesy of Michigan ACLU
UAIS students with a sign for the March 14 student walkout.

In a letterto its principal this week, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan asked Utica Academy for International Studies to lift its prohibition against political signs at student demonstrations.

UAIS principal Shaun Greene-Beebe announced the ban to the school community leading up to the March 14 National Student Walkout that took place in response to the Parkland, Florida school shootings. 

According to Michigan ACLU Legal Director Michael Steinberg, several students were suspended for peacefully carrying signs expressing their political views.  He said one sign read "Thoughts and Prayers Don't Save Lives. Gun Reform Will." Another sign said "Call your Senators" and listed local phone numbers. Another said "Stop Killing Us."

"School officials should be praising, not punishing, students for engaging in the democratic process and seeking reform following the massacre of their peers in Florida," said Steinberg. "It's hard to imagine a more unconstitutional rule than one that punishes students for simply displaying political signs during demonstrations.

"About 50 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court made it very clear that students have a right to make political statements in school, even if they're controversial, so long as they don't constitute a material and substantial disruption to the school,"  Steinberg said.

According to Steinberg, even though the UAIS administration removed the suspension from the records of the suspended students, the ban and the resulting suspensions had a chilling effect on freedom of speech at the school.

In addition to rescinding the no-political signs rule, the Michigan ACLU wants school officials to apologize publicly to the suspended students. 

UAIS officials declined a request for an interview or to answer whether they plan to lift the ban.  

Principal Greene-Beebe issued the following statement:

UAIS is committed to protecting and upholding the free speech rights of all its students. We also take seriously our responsibilities and obligations to provide a safe learning environment for all students while they are under our care. This obligation includes reasonable time, place and manner guidelines in furtherance of that goal. The administration of UAIS looks forward to working together with all students in its care to provide educational and learning opportunities through appropriate demonstration of diverse ideas.