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On The Front Lines

Warning of First Amendment Violations, Rutherford Institute Denounces Confiscation of High School Yearbooks After Trump Quote Causes Offense

HAMLET, NC — The Rutherford Institute has denounced a North Carolina high school’s decision to confiscate and ban copies of the school’s yearbook after members of the public objected to a Donald Trump quote chosen by a student to accompany her senior photo. Richmond Early College High School in Hamlet, N.C., banned the yearbook containing the Trump quote “Build that wall” and confiscated copies that had already been paid for and distributed.

While acknowledging the particular challenges that school administrators must grapple with in creating nurturing environments for learning while also accommodating the varied—and sometimes controversial—views of its students, The Rutherford Institute warned that censorship should never be the answer. Moreover, Institute attorneys stressed that the student’s choice of the Trump quote “Build that wall” was constitutionally-protected political speech, caused no disruption within the school, and should not have been labeled “inappropriate” and banned by school officials even if the view expressed by the quote was unpopular. Pointing out that it is far better to teach students to tolerate divergent views than to suppress speech, The Rutherford Institute called on schools officials to distribute the yearbooks as originally printed.

The Rutherford Institute’s letter to Principal Tonya Waddell is available at

“Emboldened by phrases such as ‘hate crimes,’ ‘bullying,’ ‘extremism’ and ‘microaggressions,’ the government is whittling away at free speech, confining it to carefully constructed ‘free speech zones,’ criminalizing it when it skates too close to challenging the status quo, shaming it when it butts up against politically correct ideals, and muzzling it when it appears dangerous,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “Yet nowhere in the First Amendment does it permit the government to limit speech in order to avoid causing offense, hurting someone’s feelings, safeguarding government secrets, protecting government officials, insulating judges from undue influence, discouraging bullying, penalizing hateful ideas and actions, eliminating terrorism, combatting prejudice and intolerance, and the like.”

Richmond Early College High School in Hamlet, N.C., has approximately 250 students in grades 9 through 13. To commemorate the 2016-17 school year, the school prepared a yearbook which prominently featured photographs of this year’s graduating students. Each graduating senior was allowed to choose a quote to appear below their picture in the yearbook in order to express something of importance to that student. Each quote was reviewed and approved by the school’s principal before it was allowed to appear in the yearbook One student chose the quote “Build that wall” with an attribution to Donald Trump. The yearbook including the “Build that wall” quote was prepared by a printer and about 20 copies of the yearbook were distributed.

After distribution, social media posts appeared denouncing the “Build that wall” quote, calling it racist and offensive. In response to these posts, school officials ordered that all copies of the yearbook be returned and barred any further distribution. Although the school sought to have “corrected” copies of the yearbook produced, it was determined that there was not sufficient time for a new printing before the end of the school year. In posts on the Richmond County Schools Facebook page, the district stated that the yearbooks were confiscated and banned because they “had errors and inappropriate comments” and that “we do not and will not tolerate inappropriate conduct toward any of our students.”