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N.J. teacher gets $325K settlement over Trump references she removed from yearbook

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette logo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3/21/2021 By Michael Levenson / The New York Times
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For years, Susan Parsons said she was told by administrators to remove “controversial” content from the high school yearbook in Wall Township, N.J.

Ms. Parsons, a teacher and the yearbook adviser, said in court papers that she had to erase from a photo a feminist bumper sticker on a student’s laptop, to Photoshop “fake” clothing onto shirtless students on a school trip to Bermuda and to take out questionable hand gestures.

But it wasn’t until 2017 that one particular edit thrust Ms. Parsons and the district into a national firestorm over free expression and political opinion.

Ms. Parsons was suspended after removing a reference to now-former President Donald Trump on a student’s shirt, an action that led to both widespread news media attention and death threats, according to a lawsuit she filed against the school district.

Ms. Parsons said she had been told by the principal’s secretary to remove Mr. Trump’s name and his slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Ms. Parsons was then publicly scapegoated and muzzled by the district, the suit said.

On Tuesday, the district’s board agreed to a $325,000 settlement to resolve her claims. About $204,000 will be paid to Ms. Parsons, and the rest will cover her legal fees and expenses, according to the settlement, which says the district’s insurers will cover the costs.

“We are happy that Susan was able to achieve the justice she deserves,” Christopher Eibeler, her lawyer, said Saturday. Under the agreement, previously reported by NJ.com, the district denied any wrongdoing.

The district and its lawyer did not respond to requests for comment Saturday. Cheryl Dyer, who was the superintendent at the time of the photo alteration, said she had retired from the district and could no longer speak for it.

In her lawsuit, Ms. Parsons said she felt it was unethical to heavily edit yearbook photos and had previously complained to the administration that the “yearbook should reflect reality.”

She was told to remove the reference to Mr. Trump on the student’s shirt in December 2016 after she went to the administration office to pick up drafts of the yearbook pages, the lawsuit said.

Ms. Parsons said she had agreed to alter the photo but was confronted by the student after the yearbooks were handed out in June 2017.

“Why did you edit the word Trump off of my shirt?” the student asked her. She told him to talk to the principal.

Later that day, one of the student’s parents emailed Ms. Parsons, saying the student’s picture had been “edited without his/our permission.”

“I would like to understand who made that decision,” the email said, according to the lawsuit. “We felt the shirt he wore was appropriate.”

Two other students then complained that a Trump logo and a quote attributed to Mr. Trump had been removed from the yearbook.

Ms. Parsons said in her suit that the logo had been cropped out by a photo vendor and that a student who worked on the yearbook had left the quote out by mistake. Nevertheless, outrage was already exploding in Wall, a township of about 25,000 near the Jersey Shore that voted for Mr. Trump in both 2016 and 2020.

Ms. Parsons said the school administration had begun a public campaign to shield itself from responsibility by creating a “false narrative” that she was responsible for the changes.

For example, Ms. Dyer, the then-superintendent, sent a letter to parents on June 9, 2017, that said — falsely, according to court papers — that “the high school administration was not aware of and does not condone any censorship of political views on the part of our students.”

On June 12, 2017, the student whose logo had been removed appeared on one of Mr. Trump’s favorite TV programs, “Fox & Friends,” and said, “The people or person who did this should be held responsible because it is a violation of mine and other people’s First Amendment rights.”

That same day, Ms. Parsons said, she was summoned to a meeting with Ms. Dyer and suspended. Days later, Mr. Trump himself drew further attention to the issue, decrying what he called “yearbook censorship” at the high school in a Facebook post.

Ms. Dyer said at the time that the yearbook alterations had amounted to “censorship and the possible violation of First Amendment rights.”

“This allegation is being taken very seriously and a thorough investigation of what happened is being vigorously pursued,” she said in a statement in 2017. The student dress code did not prevent students from expressing their political views or support for a political figure, Ms. Dyer added.

Ms. Parsons told The New York Post, “We have never made any action against any political party.” That prompted Ms. Dyer to send an email to Ms. Parsons’ union representative to remind her that she did not have permission to speak to the newspaper, the lawsuit said.

Ms. Parsons said the superintendent had cited a district media policy that was like a “gag order” that prevented her from defending herself.

Ms. Parsons, who said in court papers that she voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, said she was soon inundated with hate mail and harassing phone messages that called her, among other things, a Nazi, a communist, anti-American and a “treasonous traitor liberal.”

She said she had been afraid to use her name when ordering takeout food and feared that drivers might try to hit her when she went for bike rides.

When Ms. Parsons returned to school in September 2017, she said, she was “disrespected and ridiculed” by students and others who blamed her for removing the Trump references from the yearbook.

She sued the district in May 2019 and retired in February 2020.

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