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, Watters 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.”
“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.
Watters’ photo “is about as newsworthy — and therefore, non-private — as it gets,” Hiestand said.
The First Amendment and what it means to students
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 court determined that school officials could not censor student expression unless they can reasonably predict that the expression would cause a substantial disruption of school activities, the center said.
When it comes to cell phones and whether they are a disruption, administrators can impose reasonable restrictions such as not using them during school hours but a principal cannot legally control what students post on social media off campus or after hours, though these attempts are seen from time to time, Gutterman said.
“It would be unreasonable to punish students who are exposing misbehavior or other problems during this public health crisis. If a student exposes something like this, the student is more akin to a whistleblower or public critic and should be praised rather than punished,” Gutterman added.
The threat of Covid-19 infections in schools is real
Zach Parsons is a sophomore at North Paulding High School who said it’s dangerous for schools to have in-person instruction. He’s not wrong, particularly when it comes to students in Georgia.
Four students from three Georgia high schools who attended classes in person this week have tested positive for Covid-19, Columbia County School District Superintendent Sandra Carraway told CNN.
At North Paulding High School, following Watters’ photo, around 40% of students were seen wearing masks, Parsons, the student, said. In a letter to the community this week, Paulding County Superintendent Brian Otott said “Wearing a mask is a personal choice, and there is no practical way to enforce a mandate to wear them.”
For any students concerned about their health and who are facing circumstances like in North Paulding High School, Hiestand of the Student Press center has two words of advice: be brave.
“Use the new speech tools that are available to say what you need to say,” Hiestand added. “As John Lewis said a month before he died: ‘And to see all of the young people…standing up, speaking up, being prepared to march. They are going to help redeem the soul of America and save our country and maybe help save the planet.'”
CNN’s Madeline Holcombe, Jamiel Lynch, Maggie Fox and Shelby Lin Erdman contributed to this report