Teacher scapegoated in Wall Township yearbook controversy files suit
Susan Parsons seeks relief from restrictions on her ability to speak to media
(MAY 6, 2019)–Wall Township former yearbook advisor and teacher Susan Parsons, who was thrown into the center of a high profile high school yearbook controversy in 2017, filed a civil rights lawsuit in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Monmouth County on Monday against the Wall Township Board of Education (BOE) as well as Wall Township High School Superintendent Cheryl Dyer, seeking redress for violations of her First Amendment right to free speech.
After yearbooks were printed and distributed in early June 2017, three Wall Township students complained that their yearbook submissions were altered to omit pro-Trump political expressions. Following these complaints, administrators met with students and Parsons and, Parsons alleges, the school began a public disinformation campaign to distance the administration from the controversy. Through their public statements, the lawsuit alleges that the Dyer painted a distorted picture of the editing process, making Parsons a scapegoat for the censorship that resulted in the controversy. Parsons alleges that, in fact, all editing and censoring of yearbook material were done at the direction of members of the school administration.
In her suit, Parsons also alleges that the Board of Education and Dyer refused to permit Parsons to speak with the media regarding the yearbook controversy. Simultaneously, Dyer disseminated a false narrative about Parsons’ role and authority in the yearbook editing process. The administration thereby made Parsons the public face of the yearbook controversy and prohibited her from speaking to the media to set the record straight. As a result of this false narrative, Parsons received death threats and harassing, messages following the story.
The lawsuit details examples of the death threats and other harassment directed at Parsons after the school’s announcement to the national media of her suspension. The Wall Police Department informed Parsons of a death threat and assigned a patrolman to monitor her house. The lawsuit also details some of the threatening voice messages, hate mail and other menacing communications directed at Parsons from those who believed that Parsons was responsible for the yearbook edits.
Parsons alleges that the BOE conducted a sham investigation and actively sought to cover up the administration’s censorship directives. The lawsuit further seeks a declaratory judgment announcing the school’s media policy to be unconstitutional and permitting Parsons to speak freely to the media. Parsons was restrained from speaking with the media in 2017, and to date, that restraint has not been lifted.
“Ms. Parsons has filed this lawsuit so the public is aware of the full story about the administration’s directives to edit the 2017 yearbook,” said attorney Christopher Eibeler of Smith Eibeler, LLC, which represents Ms. Parsons in her lawsuit. “This case is about an abuse of power. While publicizing a false narrative accusing Ms. Parsons of wrongdoing on a politically charged issue, the school imposed an unconstitutional gag order that prevented her from defending her innocence to irate members of the public.”
Eibeler added, “We have demanded that the gag order be lifted and are awaiting their response.”
In 2017, Principal Rose Sirchio, Assistant Principal Kevin Davis, Assistant Principal Kirsten Scott and Secretary Cindy McChesney were all involved in the yearbook editing process. School policy requires that every page of the yearbook be reviewed, edited and approved by the administration, a process that is recorded every year in a series of “Yearbook Approval Forms.”
Throughout the 2017 editing process, Parsons alleges, she and the administration often disagreed about the directed edits and what Parsons believed to be “inappropriate censorship” of the yearbook. The controversy that was framed as the responsibility of Parsons stemmed from an edit directed by Secretary McChesney, calling on Parsons to have her students remove President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” logo from a student’s photo.
“The school falsely claimed and maintained, in press statements and in multiple interviews with the national press, that the administration had nothing to do with the edits to the yearbook,” said Eibeler. “Ms. Parsons deserves the chance to tell her side of the story and defend her own reputation, which has been wrongly sullied by the administration.”
Parsons’ full civil complaint can be viewed here.