Grace Altenhofen

In what ways are you involved with the ACLU of Kansas?
Plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit against the Shawnee Mission School District

What specific experience brought you to supporting the ACLU? 
On April 20, 2018, my high school was one of thousands of schools across the country to participate in the National School Walkout against gun violence. The school had made it clear beforehand that though the walkout would be tolerated, it was entirely the students’ initiative and was not school-sponsored or endorsed; however, school administrators actively prevented students from mentioning the words ‘gun’, ‘gun violence’, and ‘gun control’ during this student-organized event. Instead, students were only permitted to reference the generic term ‘school safety’, which minimized the entire point of the National Walkout.

As the originally planned walkout concluded, a group of a hundred or so students decided to continue the walkout in front of the school. It was important to these students that their messages on gun violence be heard, despite school administration’s censorship of the original event. 

This unsanctioned continuation of the walkout was breaking news, so photojournalists from the school newspaper and yearbook began taking photos. I watched in disbelief as an associate principal began to specifically target the photojournalists, yelling at them to cease taking photos and ordering them to go back inside the building. They complied, one by one, until only one photographer remained, standing back quietly at the edge of the activity, still taking photos. The associate principal spotted her, walked silently up to her and snatched the camera out of her hands. The photographers’ attempts to document the event were squelched. I began to wonder if this was the beginning of total administrator censorship of the school newspaper. If I tried to write an article about the walkout too, would it meet the same fate?

As a student journalist myself, I also knew that the actions of the associate principal had violated the 1992 Kansas Student Publications Act. Section 3(a) of the Kansas Student Publications Act reads, “Material shall not be suppressed solely because it involves political or controversial subject matter.” By preventing student journalists from taking photos of a controversial event, the associate principal violated the rights given to student journalists in the state of Kansas.

Three days later, I decided to give a speech before the district’s board of education on the free press violation that had occurred during the walkout.  A local journalist was at that board meeting and the next day I discovered he had written an article about my speech. The story was then picked up by other news outlets across the country, including the Associated Press and the Student Press Law Center.

The next week, I had to sit in a meeting with the school principal and listen to his assertion that student journalists are only journalists during journalism class; the rest of the time, they’re just students and have no right to be covering breaking news. A separate meeting with the interim superintendent was also less than fruitful as he reiterated his view that the Kansas Student Publications Act was “open to interpretation”.  

It would have been easy to feel defeated, but a few days later I was contacted by the ACLU of Kansas who wanted to talk to me about what I witnessed during the walkout. Ultimately, they asked if they could add my name as a plaintiff in a civil rights lawsuit they intended to file against the school district. The ACLU shared my belief that the Kansas Student Publications Act was violated, as well as the First Amendment. I agreed to join the lawsuit. 

Over the several months that ensued, I had the opportunity to work with some of the bravest people I’ve ever met: Lauren Bonds and Zal Shroff of the ACLU of Kansas, and attorney Eric Weslander. They fought what at times seemed like an uphill battle, and they stood by us when our own school district wouldn’t. They put in an immense amount of time and work, simply because it was the right thing to do. They are everything I hope to be someday.

Finally, in spring of 2019, almost a year since the lawsuit was initially filed, we reached a settlement agreement with the school district. As part of the agreement, they had to provide First Amendment training to administrators, create a policy protecting students’ free speech, revise the student journalism policy to prohibit administrators from banning student journalists from events or confiscating their equipment, and issue an apology to each plaintiff. Because of this case, students in the district have protections that they did not have before, and I believe the district is a better place for students because of it. 

None of this would have been possible without the hard work of the ACLU team. They stood behind me, and I stand behind them wholeheartedly; in a world where hope is often lacking, it brings me hope to know that there are good people willing to stand up for what is right.

What issue(s) are you passionate about?
I feel strongly about a lot of things, but the issues I am the most passionate about are freedom of the press and LGBTQ issues. To further these causes in my own little corner of the world, I am on the newspaper staff and in the Rainbow Union of my college.

If you had a civil liberties magic wand, what issue would you make disappear - or resolve for good?
All of them! Picking just one issue to resolve for good is difficult, as every issue is important and there is a lot of intersectionality between issues. 

Tell us about your favorite fall or holiday season tradition.
My favorite holiday tradition is putting up the Christmas tree and decorations the day after Thanksgiving. My parents and I go through the bag of ornaments and my mom always insists on putting up the ugly ones I made in preschool (a tradition I secretly love–don't tell her!). I already have my playlist of Christmas music made up for that day–which I've been listening to since the day after Halloween.

What are you grateful for this season? 
I'm grateful for my newfound college friends and my family–especially my mom, who signed onto an ACLU lawsuit for me when I was still a minor!

Who's your favorite civil liberties champion?
My personal hero is the ACLU of Kansas' Legal Director Lauren Bonds. She stood up for us when many wouldn't have, and I'm always in awe of her dedication and genuine passion for her job. Lauren, you're the best!