Teacher blamed for Trump yearbook controversy demands Wall Township lift gag order, allow her to talk to media

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

HOLMDEL, NEW JERSEY (MAY 9, 2019)–The high school teacher who was blamed for a yearbook censorship controversy in Wall Township in 2017 filed a motion in the Superior Court in Monmouth County on Thursday, seeking immediate relief from a Board of Education (BOE) policy that has blocked her from being able to tell her full story to the media.

In her original lawsuit filed on May 6, 2019, Susan Parsons alleged she was framed by members of the school administration as the person responsible for digitally altering a student’s 2017 yearbook photo to remove a “Trump: Make America Great Again” logo from his shirt, a narrative she was unable to refute due to an ongoing BOE media gag order.

“Ms. Parsons’ First Amendment rights have been and continue to be restricted and abridged,” said attorney Christopher Eibeler of Smith Eibeler, LLC, referring to the contents of the brief filed today in the Superior Court. “BOE Media Policy 9400, which was employed by the district, is a prior restraint on Susan Parsons’ First Amendment rights to free speech.”

The BOE media policy requires staff to acquire advance permission from the Superintendent before they can speak to the media. Parsons has sought to have the policy lifted so that she can share the full truth of what happened.

In a letter dated May 1, 2019, Parsons’ attorneys informed the defendants, the Wall Township BOE and Superintendent Cheryl Dyer, that Parsons would be filing a First Amendment lawsuit imminently and requested that the gag order be lifted. Despite follow-up communications, the gag order remains in place. Meanwhile, numerous media outlets have contacted Parsons for an interview in response to the lawsuit filed Monday.

“We are disappointed that the district will not lift the media gag order on Susan Parsons, said Eibeler. “Susan Parsons has been subjected to death threats and other harassment as a result of not only being falsely blamed, but of not being able to defend herself through her own voice.”

In 2017, after students complained about the yearbook changes, the ensuing controversy captured national news attention and dominated public discourse locally. Parsons was harassed at work and at home, the small swim business she ran, Shore 2 Swim, became a public avenue to malign her character and cause emotional harm. She has also received death threats. All of these issues could have been avoided if she had not been prohibited from exercising her constitutional right to free speech. Since she filed the lawsuit, the controversy has been reignited and has once again captured both local and national news coverage and attention, making the issue of the gag order a pressing matter once again.

When the story first received media coverage on June 9, 2017, Superintendent Dyer embarked on a campaign to insulate the administration by issuing statements to the media and members of the public, categorically denying the administration’s involvement in or foreknowledge of the decision to edit the “Make America Great Again” logo out of the student’s photo. In the midst of disseminating this false narrative, Parsons’ lawsuit says, Superintendent Dyer imposed a gag order on Parsons, thereby restricting Parsons’ ability to speak to the media.

After imposing the gag order, Superintendent Dyer suspended Parsons the following day–immediately prior to a scheduled meeting between the administration and the father of the student whose photo was altered to remove the pro-Trump logo. Prior to her suspension, Parsons had been instructed by the administration to participate in the parent-teacher meeting. Parsons’ lawsuit alleges that Superintendent Dyer took this action to further restrict her speech and prevent Parsons from informing the student’s father directly that the edits were directed by the administration.

“As the United States Supreme Court has made clear, “[t]he loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury,” said Eibeler. “But Susan Parsons has been, and continues to be, irreparably harmed by the unconstitutional gag order. We filed an emergent application today, seeking relief from the Court so our client can finally tell her story to the world.”

“The order submitted today also seeks to void BOE policy 9400 as it applies to all staff members and pupils in the school district, as we believe their rights are also being violated and their speech chilled by this unconstitutional prior restraint on free speech under the First Amendment,” said Eibeler. “This ongoing yearbook controversy shows the dire consequences that result when a citizen loses their right to speak freely.”

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