(CNN)As scores of American children return to classrooms under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, free speech experts have bristled at the sight of a public school punishing a student for practicing her right to free speech by sharing a photo of classmates not wearing masks and not social distancing on campus.
Free speech experts call on public schools to not penalize students for sharing images of maskless classmates
This issue became a flashpoint this week after sophomore Hannah Watters was disciplined for posting a photo on Twitter showing many of her fellow North Paulding High School classmates in Dallas, Georgia not wearing masks while walking down a crowded hallway. The photo was posted on Twitter at the end of dismissal, Hannah said.
"I took it mostly out of concern and nervousness after seeing the first days of school," she said. "I was concerned for the safety of everyone in that building and everyone in the county because precautions that the CDC and guidelines at the CDC has been telling us for months now weren't being followed."
Hannah, who also shared a video showing what dismissal looked like at the end of a school day, was suspended for five days for violating several parts of the school's code of conduct, she said. Those violations included using a cell phone during school hours, using social media during school hours and violating student privacy by photographing them, she said. The school reversed the suspension on Friday; Hannah can return to class on Monday, she added.
What happened to Hannah can befall other students as the pandemic persists and schools reopen around the US, said Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel for the Student Press Law Center. The center is a non-profit organization that works to support and defend the First Amendment and press freedom rights of high school and college journalists and their advisers.
"I've little doubt that these sorts of conflicts are going to dominate my life over the next many months," Hiestand told CNN. "People tend to assume that most censorship issues involving student journalists concern stories about sex, drugs and rock and roll sort of stuff. Not true. By far the most common targets for censorship are accurate, lawful stories that school officials believe cast the school in a negative light. Student stories showing their school's response to Covid has censorship written all over them."
There is no expectation of privacy in a crowded public school hallway, Hiestand said. As such, there's no reasonable claim that these sorts of photos are violating anyone's legal right to privacy, particularly now when the lead headline of many news organizations has to do with students returning to school during a global pandemic, he added.
Hannah's photo "is about as newsworthy -- and therefore, non-private -- as it gets," Hiestand said.
The freedom of speech protection afforded by the First Amendment applies to people of any age and, thanks to the Supreme Court, that unequivocally includes students.
The Supreme Court has famously ruled that students do not shed their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate, and that holds true today as much as it did in 1969, said Roy Gutterman, an attorney and director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University's Newhouse School.
In the case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, the Supreme Court ruled in 1969 that Iowa public school officials had violated the First Amendment rights of several students after suspending them for wearing black armbands protesting the US involvement in Vietnam, according to the Middle Tennessee State University Free Speech Center's website.
The court determined that school officials could not censor student expression unless they can reasonably predict tha