By Katie Reilly
September 18, 2019

Cheerleaders at a North Carolina high school are on probation after posing with a Trump 2020 banner at a football game last month — a decision that has sparked criticism and debates about student rights to free speech.

The cheerleaders at North Stanley High School in New London, N.C., were placed on probation by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association for the rest of the football season — a step the organization described as a warning, not a punishment, because the squad was not suspended and will not be prevented from performing at upcoming football games.

Stanley County Schools said a student brought the banner to the football game on Aug. 30, and the cheerleaders took the photo before the game started. “This was not an act planned or endorsed by the school or its staff,” the district said in a statement the next day, citing a Stanly County Board of Education policy that “prohibits the display or distribution of political advertisements on campus or at school events.”

The North Carolina High School Athletic Association said it decided to place the cheerleaders on probation “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.”

Student Carson Palmer, who brought the banner to the game for Red, White and Blue night, told WCNC that “it was just what came to our mind when we thought of the United States of America.”

“I think it’s just been blown way out of proportion and twisted a lot from what it was intended to be,” Palmer said. “It was never our intention to upset the community and never was our intention to get the cheerleaders on probation.”

The school district said the cheerleaders were not disciplined by school officials, but they’ve asked the squad not to display the Trump 2020 banner again. The district said its policy regarding political campaign materials “is in place to ensure the school system remains neutral on political issues and the focus remains on our students.”

“This policy does not prohibit students from speaking their minds or engaging in protected First Amendment activities,” the district said in a statement on Sunday. “Because the cheerleaders were in uniform and were acting as representatives of the school, the display of the sign could be perceived as the school or school system endorsing a political campaign.”

But some conservatives have criticized the athletic association’s probation as a violation of student rights. “I am appalled these students are being punished for exercising their First Amendment right to free speech,” North Carolina Rep. Richard Hudson wrote in a letter to the North Carolina High School Athletic Association on Tuesday. ”

“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.”

While the landmark Supreme Court decision Tinker v. Des Moines established that students and teachers do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” K-12 public schools have more leeway than other public institutions when it comes to regulating speech. They’re generally allowed to restrict speech if it poses a “substantial disruption” to the school’s educational mission or to the rights of other students.

Separately, cheerleaders at Lake Hamilton High School in Arkansas sparked similar controversy last week for holding a banner at a football game on Sept. 13 that read, “Make America Great Again. Trump The Leopards” — a reference to the mascot for the opposing team. Democratic state Sen. Joyce Elliott called the sign “totally inappropriate,” while Republican state Rep. Aaron Pilkington defended it as a funny “play on words.”

In a statement, reported by KFSM, the Lake Hamilton School District said the banner “was not intended to make a political statement or endorsement” and said “the district has taken steps to ensure that all future banners do not mention or reference political or controversial issues.”

Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com.

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