ANN ARBOR – In a letter to Ann Arbor Public Schools today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan threatened to sue the school district unless the superintendent reversed a Pioneer High School decision denying school club status to a student group opposing the installation of surveillance cameras. Pioneer administrators have refused to afford the group the same privileges as other student clubs because it is political group that opposes a school decision.
“If the First Amendment means anything, it means that citizens including students -- have a right to challenge the wisdom of government policies and to advocate for change,” said ACLU Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg in the letter. “Frankly, it should be embarrassing to the Ann Arbor community that the Pioneer administration is perfectly willing to recognize and give privileges to a student group like the Scooby Doo Club, but deny the same treatment to students who are organizing to advance constitutional values.”
In an effort to stop the installation of 53 surveillance cameras at Pioneer High School, student leaders formed Pioneer Students Against Surveillance (PSAS). The group argued that the surveillance cameras would unnecessarily compromise student privacy and create a detrimental Big Brother atmosphere at the school. PSAS members presented more than 1100 petition signatures from Pioneer students to the administration and school board, lobbied administrators and board members individually and spoke out against the cameras at school board meetings. Despite their efforts, the school board voted to support the administration’s plan.
However, PSAS did not disband after the school board approved the installation of cameras. It continues to organize to educate students on privacy issues, to develop policies to limit the purposes for which the surveillance tapes may be used and to urge the district to reverse its decision to use cameras to monitor and record students in school.
PSAS has been working to be recognized as a school club since mid-December because school recognized clubs have many privileges not available to other clubs. Such privileges include using the public address system and bulletin boards to announce meetings and events and the ability to set up information tables during lunch. However, after reviewing their application, Assistant Principal Kevin Hudson said it would be hypocritical for the district to have one position on the issue and allow for a student group to have a different policy. He encouraged the students to talk to Principal Michael White who told the students that he did not want to have “political clubs” at school.
At a second meeting with the assistant principal, the students showed him a copy of a recent federal court opinion where a student Christian bible club successfully sued the Farmington Public Schools to force the school to recognize it as a student club and afford it the privileges of the other school-recognized groups. However, according to the students, Mr. Hudson said that if they wanted the school to recognize PSAS, they would have to sue as well.
In today’s letter, the ACLU charges that the discriminatory treatment of PSAS based on its political message violates not only the students’ constitutional rights to freedom of speech and association, but also both the Federal Equal Access Act and the Michigan Equal Access Act.
“The school administration should be supportive of and actively involved in this dialogue, instead of fully rejecting its legitimacy,” said Bennett Stein Pioneer High School student council president and PSAS co-founder. “More than forty students have been active members of the Pioneer Students Against Surveillance solely through word of mouth and online communication and there are many other students at Pioneer that may want to be a part of these important discussions that still have not had the opportunity to have their voice heard.”
According to the Pioneer website, there are at least 30 school recognized clubs this semester on a wide variety of issues ranging from the Student Society for Stem Cell Research and the World Crises Awareness Club to the Gospel Choir and Muslim Student Union to the Dance-a-Palooza Club and the Scooby Doo Club.