In a case drawing the attention of national religious-liberty groups, a Wilson High School student says school administrators discriminated against his student group that opposes abortion by banning certain messages the group wanted to post around campus.
Bryce Asberg, a 15-year-old freshman at the Tacoma school, is a leader in a school-approved club, Wilson Students for Life. He said school officials barred his group from hanging some of his club’s posters at school. Other posters had to be altered to win school approval, he said.
Bryce said he believes Tacoma Public Schools is “trying to keep us from expressing our beliefs because of the content of our message.”
School district attorney Shannon McMinimee said that’s not the case. She said Wilson Students for Life currently has 30 posters up around the campus, all of which have been approved.
McMinimee said two other posters were initially disallowed because the club didn’t go through the approval process -- a point that Bryce disputes.
She said only one poster was not allowed because of its “potentially disruptive” content. She didn’t know what it contained, and Wilson officials referred all questions to her.
Bryce has support from both the national Students for Life of America, based in Virginia, and a Chicago law firm, the Thomas More Society, which represents causes including opposition to abortion and religious liberty.
The law firm wrote a letter to Wilson administrators dated Feb. 11, saying that Wilson Students for Life was “denied permission by Wilson High administrators to hold a day of silence, to hold a candlelight vigil or even to hang certain pro-life posters.”
McMinimee said Students for Life never proposed a day of silence.
“They talked about a candlelight vigil and administrators explained to them how to make the request if they wanted to use school property for that outside of school hours,” McMinimee said. “They never followed up with that.”
School policy says posters can’t offend staff or students, put others down for having different opinions or beliefs or cause disruption.
One of the posters that was initially disallowed features a quote from President Ronald Reagan: “I’ve noticed that everyone who is for abortion is already born.” The other poster marks the anniversary of the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision on abortion.
The letter from the Thomas More Society suggests the district has a double standard. It says other Wilson student groups, such as the school’s Gay Straight Alliance, have hung posters that could offend some. They include a poster that depicts scientific symbols for male and female, with same-sex symbols linked.
“Yet these posters were approved by the administration while posters containing a message in favor of the pro-life cause were not permitted,” the letter continues.
The letter asks for a response from the school district by Feb. 25. McMinimee said she has responded, but Jocelyn Floyd, an attorney with the Thomas More Society, said Wednesday that she hadn’t seen it yet.
The letter said that if the school does not grant the students’ requests, it’s prepared to pursue the matter in court.
“Students do not lose Constitutional free speech rights simply because they are in a school,” Floyd said.
Deeming a topic controversial isn’t a good enough reason to prohibit it, she added.
McMinimee said the district is allowed to control student speech that might be incorrectly construed as “reflecting the viewpoint of the school.”
But Bryce said he feels like his club has been treated unfairly.
“We are trying to express our pro-life views, which every student has a right to,” Bryce said. “We feel we are being censored because of what we have to say.”
He listed one example of a poster that shows various stages of fetal development. He said the poster was allowed but he had to remove its printed message: “Abortion breaks tiny hearts.”
Bryce said he knows that the subject of abortion is “a tricky situation” and that it can be controversial. But he said his group wants to be a source of information for students.