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Arab Student Union files lawsuit against DC and Principal Sah Brown, alleging censorship of pro-Palestine speech

ACLU Court Filings
A poster by the Arab Student Union advertising the lunch-and-learn event on December 14th and 15th, before the posters were removed by Principal Brown.

Jackson-Reed’s Arab Student Union (ASU) filed a lawsuit in federal court on Wednesday accusing Principal Sah Brown and the District of Columbia of censoring pro-Palestinian speech, including the school’s decision to bar the ASU from showing a documentary film and holding a culture night.

The lawsuit claims that these actions, and others since the Israel-Gaza War began in October, violated the students’ First Amendment rights. The complaint was filed on behalf of the ASU by the American Civil Liberties Union, a nonprofit legal organization whose objective is to protect the constitutional rights of Americans.

“For the past four months, [the ASU] and its members have been trying to engage in expressive activities at the high school … but have been stopped at every turn by the school administration,” the lawsuit states. “Their speech has been suppressed because the school does not want their viewpoint—which concerns the ongoing war in Gaza and its effects on the Palestinian people—to be heard.”

In an interview with the Beacon, ACLU attorney Arthur Spitzer said the lawsuit “is about asking a judge to order the school to let the Arab Student Union engage in the activities that they have been trying to engage in.” Jackson-Reed (JR), he said, should “treat the Arab Student Union the same as it treats other student clubs—same procedures, same rules.” The ASU “shouldn’t be singled out for censorship in a way that other clubs are not,” Spitzer said.

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An ASU member, who asked not to be named, told the Beacon, “We love Jackson-Reed, and we don’t want to make it look bad, but we just want people who have been trying to silence us to be held accountable.”

The ASU will ask the court to schedule a public hearing on the lawsuit in early May. It also requested that the court force JR to allow the ASU to show the 2016 documentary, The Occupation of the American Mind, by June 7, the last day of school for seniors; allow the ASU to hold a Palestinian Culture Night; and allow students to distribute content about Palestine on school premises.

“I am aware of the allegations that have been made, and I support our students in their right to advocate for themselves,” Brown told the Beacon.

He said he would comment further at a later date. A DCPS spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In December, the ASU attempted to show the documentary, which argues that Israel manipulated the portrayal of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Western media. However, the film has been accused of promoting antisemitic tropes, and its narrator, Roger Waters, has been accused of past antisemitic actions.

After removing posters advertising the documentary screening and discussion, the administration halted the event. Brown previously told the Beacon that the film could not be shown because it was not on a list of pre-approved DCPS resources provided to teachers.

The lawsuit says that other school clubs regularly show movies as part of their activities. “For example, the French Club has shown French films and the Marvel Monday Club regularly screens and discusses Marvel films,” it says. “There is no special procedure or permission required for a club to show a film at a club meeting.”

“It seems obvious that the principal had a problem with the content of the movie and not with the procedure,” Spitzer said.

The lawsuit also alleges that the ASU emailed Brown a list of four other movies the group wished to show in the spring. It says that Brown did not respond for a month and then explained that the films were under review by DCPS. The suit says that the ASU has not heard back about the other films.

When the ASU planned a Palestinian culture night for January, the administration blocked the group from holding the event and offered two options: merge the event with a larger slate of festivities celebrating Arab Heritage Month in April or represent their culture at International Night in May.

According to the lawsuit, ASU’s faculty sponsor submitted a form to request building use for the culture night. The event was approved and placed on JR’s official calendar. However, the complaint says, the event was subsequently removed from the calendar.

“On information and belief, Defendant Brown personally made the decision to remove the Palestinian Culture Night from the school calendar,” the lawsuit states.

The ASU claims the administration refused to allow the event because it was not scheduled more than a month in advance, as required. But, the lawsuit says, the event was added to the calendar on Dec. 19, 30 days before the event’s intended date of Jan. 18. The event is now being held on the night of April 25 in the atrium.

In March, the ASU set up a table in the atrium to promote Palestinian Culture Night where it distributed a one-page information sheet, or zine, about certain Palestinian symbols and pro-Palestine stickers. According to the lawsuit, the administration required the ASU to submit the zine for review and required changes.

During the event, the lawsuit says, “a school administrator told the students that they were not allowed to distribute the stickers with the outline of Palestine or the ones that said ‘Free Palestine.’”

“I don’t know what other excuses the school would have had for censoring the zine,” Spitzer said. “They didn’t want to expose people to ideas they might not like.”

Spitzer said schools can prevent student speech on two grounds: the risk of substantial disruption, such as mass walkouts and fights, and interference with the rights of other students. The lawsuit says that the defendants “have never asserted that they anticipate disruption” if the ASU held its activities. Spitzer also said that the planned events would not have intruded on other students because “all of these activities were voluntary for people to get involved.”

The lawsuit does not seek any financial damages beyond payment of attorney’s fees.

Spitzer added, “The only safe answer for everybody is that everybody’s speech has to be protected.”

Simon Holland and Lila Chesser contributed to this story.

This story was originally published on Tiger Beat on April 24, 2024.