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On The Front Lines

As COVID Rates Rise, Student Whistleblowers Disciplined for ‘Negative’ Social Media Posts of Crowded Hallways, Maskless Students at School

DALLAS, Ga. — With more than 97,000 children testing positive for the coronavirus during a two-week period that coincides with schools across the nation struggling to determine when and how to safely re-open, student whistleblowers at a Georgia high school district were suspended for sharing pictures on social media showing mostly maskless students in a crowded school hallway. Although the suspension has since been lifted following a public outcry, The Rutherford Institute warned North Paulding High School officials against threatening students who raise legitimate health and safety concerns about the school environment, pointing out that students’ First Amendment right to speak out and share information about school conditions may not be restricted or sanctioned unless it materially and substantially disrupts school operations.

“The First Amendment’s highest purpose is to allow for a free and uncensored flow of information in order to foster government transparency and ensure that that the citizenry and public servants in government—those elected and appointed to represent the citizenry—can make informed choices about the challenges before them,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “With every community and segment of our country forced to grapple with the myriad problems posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to protect and foster freedom of speech and government transparency has never been more essential than it is now.”

In March 2020, Paulding County School District (PCSD), like most nationwide, closed its schools in response to the coronavirus health emergency. Since that time, school districts have wrestled with the question of whether and how to reopen for the fall semester in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Paulding County School District decided to reopen and bring most students back into schools beginning the week of August 3. Students are not required to wear masks, which the District deemed a personal choice, although it strongly recommended students wear masks. Two pictures were posted on Twitter depicting a hallway in North Paulding High School on August 3 and 4 and each showed students crowded together in the hallway, with few wearing masks or other face coverings. These pictures went “viral” on social media and were widely covered in the press as depicting a “chaotic first week back in U.S. classrooms.” Although the Superintendent of PCSD acknowledged that the photos and the conditions they depicted “did not look good” and that adjustments to school operations might be necessary, the student whistleblowers who publicized the pictures were suspended, with one student given a five-day out-of-school suspension for violating rules that limit the use of cellphones in the school. Additionally, North Paulding High’s principal made an announcement to students that “[a]nything that’s going on social media that’s negative or alike without permission, photography, that’s video or anything, there will be consequences[.]” Although the student’s five-day suspension was subsequently rescinded following a public outcry, The Rutherford Institute is urging school administrators to renounce any threat of disciplinary action against students for social media posts that relate to matters of public concern lest they run afoul of the First Amendment’s safeguards for free speech and other expressive activity.

The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.

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