High school cheerleaders put on probation for posing with 'TRUMP 2020' banner

Congressman Richard Hudson wrote a letter Tuesday rebuking the athletic association's decision to punish the students "for exercising their First Amendment right to free speech."

Digital Content Producer
September 18, 2019 - 2:07 pm

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STANLY COUNTY, N.C. (KFTK) — Criticism and debates about students' rights to free speech are following the recent news of high school cheerleaders in North Carolina who were put on probation after posing with a "TRUMP 2020" banner at a football game last month.

Before a "Red, White and Blue"-themed home game Friday, Aug. 30, a group of cheerleaders took a photo with the banner made by fellow students, according to NBC affiliate WCNC. "It was just what came to our mind when we thought of the United States of America,” junior Carson Palmer told WCNC.

Palmer and his friend, Matthew Mangham, who is also a junior, said they didn't think much about the photo until they were called into the principal's office a few days later.

The Stanly County school district then made a statement following an investigation of the incident:

"Stanly County Schools respects the rights of its students, staff, and visitors to express their opinions in a respectful manner on their own time, however, Stanly County Board of Education policy prohibits the display or distribution of political advertisements on campus or at school events. Further, Stanly County Schools never makes political campaign endorsements. These policies ensure that all students, staff and visitors are able to attend school events in an environment that promotes students and not a particular political viewpoint."

The Stanly County Board of Education determined the students violated a policy that says:

"In order to minimize disruption to the learning environment, political campaign materials may not be distributed to students or employees (including through employee mailboxes and e-mail) or made available on school grounds during school time or at school events. However, on election days, posters and printed materials are permitted at school buildings used as polling places in accordance with state law and board of elections requirements."

While the policy does not prohibit students from engaging in protected First Amendment activities, school officials said because the cheerleaders were in uniform acting as representatives of the school, the sign could be perceived as an endorsement on behalf of the school, which is not allowed, WCNC noted.

The North Carolina High School Athletic Association placed the cheerleading squad on probation for the remainder of the season "to highlight the NCHSAA’s philosophy of cheerleading as well as Stanly County Schools’ local district policy on political endorsements by individuals representing the school," according to TIME. 

Following the news of the cheerleaders' probation, North Carolina Congressman Richard Hudson submitted a letter to the North Carolina High School Athletic Association Tuesday rebuking its decision to punish the students "for exercising their First Amendment right to free speech."

"As leaders, we should be encouraging America's youth to participate in our democracy and political process — not punishing and silencing them. These North Stanly students respectfully displayed a sign and took a picture. They did not cause a scene, participate in a protest or break any school code of conduct," Hudson wrote.

Hudson called on the athletic association to "reconsider this unfair punishment."

As the story has gained traction at the national level, some have come together in support of the cheerleaders by creating a Facebook event, in which attendees are invited to help "show the school and the NCHSAA that freedom of speech is not dead. Please bring all your Trump and MAGA gear and let's throw our support behind the North Stanly High School cheerleaders."

As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 1,100 are interested and 170 have marked "Going" to the Sept. 20 event.

A few states away, Arkansas state legislators are voicing their opinions on Twitter about a similar photo of cheerleaders holding a hand-made sign that reads “Make America Great Again Trump The Leopards.” The banner was held during a Lake Hamilton High School football game on Friday, Sept. 13, against the Malvern High School Leopards.

Democratic Sen. Joyce Elliott called the act "totally inappropriate."

Conversely, Republican Rep. Aaron Pilkington retweeted Elliot, making the comment that "it's a play on words." 

After the incident, CBS affiliate KFSM reports that Lake Hamilton school officials released the following statement:

“The Lake Hamilton School District believes that all school activities should be conducted in an environment where good sportsmanship and respect are shown. The banner displayed at the football game this past Friday was not intended to make a political statement or endorsement. The district has taken steps to ensure that all future banners do not mention or reference political or controversial issues.”

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