Arlington student’s ‘God is Dead’ T-shirt prompts yearbook tussle

ARLINGTON — As debate club president and a top student, Arlington High School senior Justin Surber has studied the constitutional rights of free speech.

Surber, 18, recently took a stand that will keep him from appearing in his club’s yearbook photo.

Once a week, Surber wears a black T-shirt featuring the 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s take on religion. In block letters, the shirt reads “GOD IS DEAD.”

Nobody has told him he can’t wear the shirt to school. He wears it to provoke debate, he says, and that’s why he wore the shirt the day the debate club photo was taken for the yearbook.

Now Surber believes his T-shirt prompted the school’s yearbook adviser to ask for a retake of the photo, without the T-shirt.

“I feel I am a victim of censorship,” Surber said.

When a student yearbook staff member came to take a second photo of the debate club a few weeks ago, Surber’s friend Reed Summerlin asked for an explanation.

The yearbook staffer indicated she had been asked by the yearbook adviser not to tell Surber the reason for the retake, Summerlin said. “She said it was about Justin’s shirt.”

In protest, Surber and Summerlin chose not to be in the second photo.

“I support Justin and his opinions, but this is a touchy case,” Summerlin said. “The loopholes will allow the school to say the T-shirt can’t be in the yearbook.”

The school district’s lawyer advised school administrators that a student’s First Amendment rights aren’t violated if the yearbook staff decides not to run a photograph of that student, said district spokeswoman Misti Gilman.

The yearbook adviser’s personal beliefs didn’t play a part in the decision to have the debate club photo retaken, and she and the yearbook staff can exercise their discretion to omit offensive and inappropriate content, Gilman said.

Arlington’s student handbook says that student publications sponsored by the school are not considered the private speech of students but are public activities of the school district, Gilman said.

The student handbook also protects student expression as long as it doesn’t disrupt the educational environment, Surber argues.

“It seems the debate club photo was retaken because my beliefs are not respected by this institution,” Surber said. “Given that photos of students in clothing with Christian messages are allowed in yearbook, one has to wonder if they are taking too much power into their hands with the whole discretion thing.”

Some of the other students in the original debate club photo may not have wanted to be associated with Surber’s T-shirt, and they may have expressed concern about being in the same photo with Surber, Principal Kurt Criscione said.

“The yearbook staff takes great pride in their work,” Criscione said. “They want to present the best possible snapshot of life at Arlington High School.”

Two weeks ago, Surber wrote e-mails to his principals and the school superintendent, expressing his concern about the retake of the debate club photo for the yearbook. He said he has yet to hear back from anyone.

Criscione said he decided that Surber’s note was just an expression of opinion, not something that required any action on the part of the administration.

Instead, Surber should have gone directly to the yearbook adviser with his concerns, Criscione said. “Just think of the learning opportunities he and the yearbook staff could have had if they had discussed First Amendment rights.”

Surber said he did not want to create a personal problem with the yearbook adviser and decided instead to send a note to the principal and vice principals.

“Not one of them could even take the time to respond. To even tell me I should go talk to (the yearbook adviser), I didn’t ask the principal for action as I didn’t know what actions could actually be taken. This isn’t your everyday issue,” Surber said.

Surber has a cumulative grade point average of 3.85 and works 30 hours a week at local fast-food restaurant. His goal is to graduate from law school and enter the political arena.

Surber said he loves his school.

“But I just can’t sit back and let censorship happen. The yearbook is for students. I want to be remembered by my peers as someone who stood for what he believed in,” he said. “Whatever happens with this, the process has been an education.”

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; gfiege@heraldnet.com.

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