Corey Friedman

In only the first week of fall classes, a suburban Atlanta school made national news for negligence and then further damaged its reputation by punishing whistleblowers and threatening critics.

North Paulding High School sophomore Hannah Watters received a five-day suspension after sharing snapshots of a crowded hallway on social media. The pictures proved most students weren’t wearing face masks or practicing social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Reaction from public health experts was swift.

“It’s not a question of if that’s going to cause spread of the pandemic,” physician and Georgia State University professor Harry Heiman told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’s only a question of how quickly and to how many people.”

Superintendent Brian Otott said the Paulding County School District would re-evaluate its coronavirus precautions and cited a staggered bell schedule to reduce hall crowding as one likely reform.

There are no plans to make masks mandatory. In a letter to parents, Otott claimed schools wouldn’t be able to enforce such a rule and said wearing a face covering is a personal choice.

That hews closely to Gov. Brian Kemp’s voluntary mask policy for Georgia residents and visitors. It’s a political maneuver sold with a cynical nod to students’ rights.

The district dress code requires skirts to be no more than 3 inches from the top of the kneecap and bans halter tops and spaghetti straps. Otott thinks school officials are duty-bound to leer at teenage girls and scrutinize skirt length, but telling students to wear masks for others’ safety violates their bodily autonomy.

Giving students the latitude to go maskless might be less galling if North Paulding didn’t rival North Korea in petty authoritarianism. In a leaked intercom recording, Principal Gabe Carmona warns students there will be “consequences” for social media posts containing photos or videos that portray the school in a negative light.

Watters and at least one other student were suspended for sharing such images. A district policy bans the use of audio or visual recording devices without special permission. There’s even an explicit anti-whistleblower clause: “This includes, but is not limited to, using recording devices to video, photograph or record misbehaviors …”

The suspensions run afoul of students’ free speech rights, and the no-recording rule might not withstand legal scrutiny. Georgia is a one-party consent state, meaning people can capture voice recordings without others’ knowledge or permission as long as they’re part of the conversation.

“The school district’s policy related to cellphone and social media use on campus raises serious First Amendment concerns in and of itself,” said Hadar Harris, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

“The extreme measures taken to discipline students who have exposed risk seem to undermine the policy’s stated progressive disciplinary structure and to chill the future expression of students or staff.”

While its mission is defending student newspapers, yearbooks and digital media outlets from censorship, the SPLC is making its free legal hotline available to any student with concerns about potential First Amendment violations. Click here for a consultation.

Emory University law professor Fred Smith Jr. told The Washington Post that selective enforcement of the photo and video ban would give rise to a constitutional claim.

Carmona singled out unflattering social media mentions in his campuswide announcement. Unless North Paulding has sniffed out every student selfie and TikTok video taken at school and imposed identical punishments, administrators don’t have a leg to stand on.

In a CNN interview, Watters called her suspension “good and necessary trouble,” echoing the late Rep. John Lewis’ famed comment on consequences he faced in the civil rights struggle. Her grit and moxie are reminiscent of Mary Beth Tinker’s, whose refusal to remove a black armband in protest of the Vietnam War led to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that limits public schools’ ability to punish student speech.

North Paulding reversed Watters’ suspension on Friday amid a whirlwind of media scrutiny. While she was banished from school, administrators started implementing safety improvements based on the lack of social distancing shown in her photographs. Class-change modifications that lead to fewer students in the hallways could save lives. That makes her a hero.

Since they don’t seem to care much for masks, the principal and superintendent should consider a different clothing accessory: dunce caps.

Corey Friedman is an opinion journalist who explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter: @coreywrites. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.