A Washington state teenager is out of his senior yearbook over his insistence on wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase "God Is Dead." The teen now feels he is a victim of censorship.
Justin Surber, 18, wears the shirt to school once a week, to spur debate, he said. Not surprisingly, Surber is the president of the debate club. When it came time to take the club's yearbook picture, Surber wore his provocative shirt.
A few weeks later, a yearbook photographer came to take a second photo. Surber's friend Reed Summerlin asked why. According to Summerlin, the photographer said, "it was about Justin's shirt.” And Summerlin claimed the photographer told him the yearbook adviser had instructed her not to tell Surber the reason.
So a new photo was taken -- but without Surber and Summerlin, who both sat out in protest. “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. Gilman added that the yearbook staff could exercise its discretion to omit offensive and inappropriate content.
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.
But Surber said there is a double standard at play. “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.”
Surber said he will continue his fight.
"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.”
After college, Surber said he plans on attending law school and entering politics.