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  • Maia Riggs

ACLU Sues on Behalf of Jackson-Reed Arab Student Union


Jackson Reed students were eventually allowed to hold Palestinian Culture Night / Credits: Jackson Reed ASU via Instagram


On April 24, the DC chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against Jackson-Reed High School. The case in question? Free speech. 


At Jackson-Reed, the Arab Student Union (ASU) worked hard to organize a Palestinian Culture Night in November, aiming to amplify Palestinian culture and tradition as many contend with the reality of a brutal war. 

Students, however, quickly faced opposition.


The Jackson-Reed principal, Sah Brown, and other administration members continuously set seemingly arbitrary rules that worked against the ASU and inhibited their ability to hold the event. Administration also barred the ASU from showing a film entitled the Occupation of the American Mind about the impact of Israeli leaders, media, and propaganda in the United States. 


Upon hearing about the administration’s restriction of such events, frustration quickly built within the Jackson-Reed community. 


Wesley Hoy (‘24), a student at Jackson-Reed said that “The amount of hurdles that the ASU had to jump through…was very messed up. The conflicting messages received—with initially the reason for the culture night not happening being ‘safety’ but then saying it was because it wasn’t ‘Palestinian month’—shows that the real cause was censorship.” 


In the wake of the situation, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took up a lawsuit against Jackson-Reed for their “Unconstitutional Censorship of Pro-Palestinian Speech.” 


Arthur Spitzer, the senior counsel at the DC chapter of the ACLU, is the lead lawyer in the case. He said that they were contacted initially by the parents of one of the students who is part of the ASU.


 “We defend freedom of speech,” Spitzer said, “Defending students’ first amendment rights is something that the ACLU has done in many places around the country for many years.” 


The ACLU filed a complaint and a motion for a preliminary junction—essentially asking to take immediate action on an urgent matter of rights being violated. 


The court responded to the preliminary junction quickly, leading to a discussion of a compromise before the judge’s decision. 


In the end, the ACLU reached a compromise with the DC lawyers: Jackson-Reed agreed that the Arab Student Union could show one of the other films that they had already asked to show (for which they had also been turned down), and made a public statement that in the future the ASU would be treated the same as all other clubs. 


On April 25th, the Jackson-Reed ASU finally held the Palestinian Culture Night they had been planning for months. The night included poetry, art, speeches, food, and even dabke, a traditional Palestinian dance. The night was a huge success, but many members of the ASU still felt resentment over its long-term delay. 


“I think the nature of a compromise is that nobody is totally happy,” said Spitzer. “Given the very short time frame until the end of the semester, and given the uncertainties about how the court would rule, I think the compromise was a sensible decision for the time being.” 


Some shortcomings have yet to be addressed. The students of the ASU have still been barred from showing The Occupation of the American Mind, with Jackson-Reed having previously cited antisemitic ideas in the film as a reason for the restriction. 


“Next steps are that we’ve asked the court to give us some time to continue discussions with each other to see if we can come to a further agreement for the future,” Spitzer explained. If the two parties are not able to fulfill a compromise agreement to resolve the remaining contested issues, the litigation will resume in further court cases and continued lawsuits or dismissals.


Jackson-Reed’s case is one of many to emerge amidst a sea of student protests like those at George Washington University. 


The ACLU has gotten involved in some similar cases, such as a lawsuit against Governor Ron DeSantis’ forced disbanding of the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at the University of Florida. 


“Just to be clear, we defend everybody’s freedom of speech,” said Spitzer. “If a Jewish Student Union at Jackson-Reed or any other school came to us and said ‘we’re not being allowed to show the film that we want to see,’ we would be just as interested in that.”


Amidst a climate of continued tension, Hoy added that “What I think is most upsetting is that there are people at this school, on both sides, who have been gravely affected by this current conflict...The censorship has further polarized the Jackson-Reed community at a time where we need to come together to reconcile and discuss our various perspectives.”

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