The High School That Banned Amnesty International

The rise of illiberal norms and the weakening of free speech continues to undermine the very causes valued by the American left.

Gustau Nacarino / Reuters

In New Albany, Ohio, a 17-year-old girl with an interest in advancing human rights tried to start a student chapter of Amnesty International at her public high school. But her principal forbade her from doing so, capitulating to critics of the group.

The conflict began with a controversial poster.

To advertise the new group she was starting, the 17-year-old, Ellie Henze, made a poster with a photo of an anti-war protest. One protester in the photo had a “Free Palestine” sign.

Off-campus critics quickly objected, according to The Columbus Dispatch:

Several people contacted the Jewish Federation of Columbus about the image, calling it offensive and "anti-Israel," said Bob Lane, the federation's vice president of Jewish community relations. Amnesty International also has drawn criticism from people who allege a bias against Israel. The federation forwarded the complaints to the school district.

The poster was removed, and soon after, “New Albany High School Principal Dwight Carter emailed an apology to all high school students and their families,” the newspaper stated. “In an April 22 email, Carter told the teen that she can form a human rights organization but it can’t be associated with Amnesty International.”

School officials explained to the newspaper that they intended to “respect the school's diversity” and “shield students from a potential political firestorm.” In the name of diversity and maintaining such a “safe space,” they banned a group founded “to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity are denied.”

Did they make the right call?

The decision to ban the club can be defended with ideas about social justice and diversity that many in the educational community endorse. According to this logic, members of a historically marginalized group were offended; even now, the group in question is targeted with hate crimes far beyond its numbers; some group members in New Albany object to Amnesty International––they experience the organization’s politics or rhetoric as triggering, and feel that it creates an unsafe or hostile space for some students; and it is problematic to second-guess or question members of a historically marginalized group when they explain what they need to feel safe and included. The best course was therefore to ban Amnesty International.

I reject that framework and the outcomes that flow from it, preferring a liberal approach that emphasizes free-speech protections and viewpoint-neutral rules. That liberal, free-speech framework better protects high school students who want to start an Amnesty International chapter even if they constantly advocate for Palestinians. And it would protect students who wanted to start a group advocating for Israelis.

That liberal framework is often violated, but it is still the law. As Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor and First Amendment expert, explained at the group blog he runs:

The First Amendment bars the government from discriminating against groups that want to use school facilities based on viewpoint. See, e.g., Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School Dist. (1993). This is part of the general principle that the government can’t limit access to most other government property based on viewpoint. When it comes to K-12 schools, the government has some extra power to restrict speech that is vulgar, pro-drug, or (the school’s likely argument in this case) likely to be substantially disruptive. But there needs to be some serious evidence of likely substantial disruption.

Indeed, in Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. School Dist. (1969), the Supreme Court held that even anti-Vietnam-war speech, which was of course highly controversial at the time (the events took place in December 1965), could not be suppressed absent real evidence that it would “materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.” The same must be true of pro-Palestinian speech, anti-Israel speech and other speech related to the conflict. That something is a “political lightning rod topic” or might “potentially bring negative attention to students” is no more a basis for suppressing pro-Palestinian speech than it was for anti-Vietnam War speech.

2. The Equal Access Act of 1984 likewise makes it illegal for public schools that get federal money, and which let other noncurriculum-related clubs to meet, “to deny equal access” or “discriminate against” any student group “on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical, or other content of [its] speech.” And while there is an exception for meetings that “materially and substantially interfere with the orderly conduct of educational activities within the school,” I doubt that this exception can apply here, for the reasons I mentioned above.

Beneath Volokh’s analysis, a sharp commenter observed, “the high school's decision is clearly wrong and should be overturned. When it is, it will be yet more evidence of how general civil liberties principles help the unpopular and the powerless.”

Lately, I’ve been pointing out other evidence of that proposition.

On college campuses, departures from liberal values frequently harm the very students they are intended to help. Speech codes are used to punish black students. The concept of “safe spaces” is invoked by administrators to shut down student activists. Warnings that teaching rape law might trigger students have had the unintended consequence of rendering some of today’s law students less prepared to advocate on behalf of future rape victims or clients wrongly accused of rape.

In fairness to Carter, the principal, running a high school is a hard business. I can see how it would be tempting to avoid conflict through compromise—to allow a student to start a human-rights group but forbid any affiliation with Amnesty International.

But the course that the principal chose didn’t even avert political turmoil or fallout. As David Welker wrote in comments at Volokh’s blog, “I am not sure why anyone would think that censoring speech would lower political controversy when instead it seems to consistently do the exact opposite.” Indeed, Americans who value free speech protect it by vocally objecting whenever it is infringed upon. Doing so sends a signal to conflict-averse educators: There’s no sense in censoring speech to avoid conflict, because doing so will guarantee conflict.

In the big picture, the free-speech advocates have it right.

Insofar as liberalism is undermined, legally or culturally, by the faction of progressivism that values “safe spaces” or “no-platforming” more than free speech (or administrative types who would stymie speech to stave off temporary political conflict), disproportionate harm will be suffered by the relatively powerless people of tomorrow, whether teenage girls trying to start another Amnesty International chapter or a dozen different analogs that can’t yet be anticipated.

The fact that weak accusations of racism and concepts like diversity and safe spaces have coalesced to block Amnesty International at a public high school should be a wake up call to the left. Abandoning liberalism leaves everyone vulnerable, and many groups that the left values will continue to be more vulnerable than most.