Media Contact

Meredith Curtis Goode, ACLU of Maryland, 443-310-9946; media@aclu-md.org

June 4, 2024

River Hill High School Censored Palestinian Students’ Speech

HOWARD COUNTY, MD – Arab and Muslim students at River Hill High School have been censored by their school administration on multiple occasions over the last seven months, in violation of their First Amendment rights. The ACLU of Maryland, on behalf of students from River Hill High School, and their parents, write to the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) to demand that the school system protect First Amendment rights of Arab and Muslim students and work to repair the harm caused by their school administration.

“They made us feel guilty, as if ‘Palestine’ and ‘Gaza’ were dirty words and something to be ashamed of,” said one of the Palestinian students at River Hill High School. “Just because of our identities they expected the worst from us and prioritized other students’ comfort and ignorance over our right to exist.”

School censorship of political speech and viewpoint discrimination are unconstitutional under the First Amendment. At a time of rampant Islamophobia, and anti-Palestinian rhetoric, HCPSS appears to be censoring only Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian (AMEMSA) speakers and other speakers in support of Palestine. At RHHS, the MSA was ordered to take down a social media post in support of Palestine. When RHHS students wanted to hold walk out demonstrations in November 2023, they were censored by their school from using words critical to their walk out, such as “Palestine”, “Gaza”, or “siege”. School administrators showed ignorance and hostility towards the experiences of Palestinian students, harassed and denied entry to RHHS MSA club guests for wearing hijabs, and generally resisted showing care to AMEMSA students or addressing Islamophobia they regularly experience.

“I just wanted the school system to have my back,” said another Palestinian student at River Hill High School. “It’s hard enough for me day to day, to have to deal with the school shutting me down and infringing on what I wanted to say and wear. It was really hard for me.”

Throughout this process, students at River Hill High School have made every effort to follow the requests and requirements of the schools. Meanwhile, one Palestinian student and her family have lost five immediate family members, 45 extended family members and dozens upon dozens of close family friends since October in Gaza. Palestinian and other AMEMSA students who are dedicated to this issue are not being allowed to speak their truth in school, where academic freedom should allow for a diversity of views.

“The First Amendment protects students’ political speech and prohibits schools from engaging in viewpoint discrimination,” said Nick Taichi Steiner, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Maryland. “Especially at this moment in history, Palestinian students deserve support and grace, and schools should take care to respect their students, and respect the Constitution.”

The letter makes clear that HCPSS must cease censoring student speech in support of Palestine in accordance with the First Amendment, and remedy the past harms done to these Arab and Muslim students and their families. The ACLU recommends that the schools take measures to protect AMEMSA students from Islamophobia, including taking suggestions from the students themselves. The students and their families also deserve an apology for the actions taken by the schools, and the disrespect exhibited towards them over the last seven months.

Learn more about the ACLU of Maryland's work to defend First Amendment rights of speakers in support of Palestine