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Our Opinion: Trump shirt flap calls for state law on student speech

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It’s sorely tempting to criticize Harnett Central High School Principal Cindy Gordon after she reportedly kicked a student out of a football game for wearing a Donald Trump shirt. But examining this blunder in isolation misses the bigger picture.

The Oct. 5 incident didn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s just the latest example in a string of public school censorship cases in the Tar Heel State, and it’s ultimately North Carolina education leaders and state lawmakers, not error-prone principals doing their best to keep the peace, who bear responsibility.

Mike Collins told The Daily Record of Dunn that his son Matthew was wearing a replica baseball jersey with USA and the Statue of Liberty torch on the front and Trump and the number 45 on the back. Matthew Collins wore the shirt in accordance with the school’s own theme — it was “USA America Night” at the Trojans’ stadium.

Gordon approached Matthew Collins and said parents were complaining about the jersey, according to the student’s dad. She allegedly told him to leave and change shirts. The teen left and did not return.

“He just went home because he was so embarrassed and he felt violated,” Mike Collins told the newspaper.

School officials are investigating, but there’s no great mystery. If the incident happened as the Collinses say, this was a crystal-clear violation of a student’s First Amendment right to free speech. No ifs, ands or buts about it. We’re not breaking any new legal ground in Harnett County. This isn’t a close call.

The family has hired an attorney to represent Matthew Collins. We predict this episode will end with a teachable moment for Harnett Central, and to the extent that a public apology educates the principal, parents and students about the Constitution, the net outcome will be positive. But censorship really need not occur to facilitate a lesson that should be taught in freshman civics.

Tinker v. Des Moines, the landmark 1967 Supreme Court decision affirming high school students’ right to wear black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War, is the controlling case law here. It’s a bulwark against administrators acting to stifle controversy by stamping out students’ political speech.

“It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” Justice Abe Fortas wrote for the majority in the 7-2 opinion.

Public schools can curb speech that results in material interference with school functions, but it takes more than mere complaint or confrontation. As if peering into principals’ minds, Fortas helpfully clarified: “undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression.”

Harnett Central isn’t the first public school and probably won’t be the last to muzzle student speakers. A pair of North Carolina schools — Richmond Early College High School in Hamlet and Piedmont Community Charter School in Gastonia — made headlines for yearbook censorship in 2017.

In Richmond County, the principal confiscated an entire press run of yearbooks and had them destroyed due to controversial senior quotes including President Trump’s campaign rallying cry, “Build that wall!”

Principals have a difficult job keeping order on high school campuses in this day and age. If they aren’t being equipped with a working knowledge of First Amendment basics, our state is setting them up to fail. And any such failure could result in a high-dollar damage award in federal court for which we, the taxpayers, would be on the hook.

In a stinging rebuke of censorship at our state’s public universities, the General Assembly passed the Restore/Preserve Campus Free Speech Act in June 2017. The time has come for similar legislation to prevent the suppression of speech at the K-12 public school level.

Lawmakers won’t reconvene in regular session until next year. In the interim, State Superintendent Mark Johnson should issue a memorandum affirming students’ right to wear political clothing and voice their views on matters of public concern.

Administrators are flunking the free-speech test because our state’s educational bureaucracy is failing them. To support outspoken students and simultaneously stand behind their overworked teachers and principals, we must hold the legislature and N.C. Department of Public Instruction responsible for safeguarding students’ expressive rights.