Cheerleaders at a North Carolina high school have found themselves under a national spotlight, but it has nothing to do with their perfect V’s or tumbling abilities.

The North Stanly High School cheerleaders posed in front a “Trump 2020 ‘Make America Great Again’ ” sign for the school’s “All American” night on Aug. 30, said Hope Miller, administrative assistant to the superintendent of the Stanly County Schools.

The photo, which was originally posted to Facebook, circulated on social media and caught the attention of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association. Soon after, the cheer squad was placed on probation for the remainder of the football season.

The fallout has ranged from a rally scheduled for Friday, to tweets urging President Trump to offer the teens his support.

Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) penned a letter on Tuesday to the athletic association, saying he is “appalled” the students were being punished for exercising their First Amendment rights and requests to know what rule had been violated.

The school district has also received threatening calls about the decision, Miller said. The attention this is getting puzzles her because no student has been suspended or removed by the high school or the school district following the picture’s circulation, she said.

“They have all participated in every event since,” she said, adding that the word “probation” was probably not the best word for the warning against the students.

Marilyn Que Tucker, the commissioner of the athletic association, said in a statement that probation isn’t a punishment.

“It serves as a notice of behavior or action that is against NCHSAA Handbook Policy or contrary to expectations of sportsmanship and proper behavior that could bring additional sanctions, including penalties such as a fine or suspensions, should infractions persist,” she said. “By NCHSAA Handbook Policy, probation may last for a period of up to one year. In the incidence concerned, no opportunities for participation were limited.”

The NCHSAA is a voluntary nonprofit group responsible for administering the “state’s interscholastic athletic program.”

Miller said there have been Facebook threats and calls of threats to the district since the controversy “has grown wings,” and she’s concerned about what attention the students could be facing.

Because the cheerleaders were in school uniforms, they were acting as representatives of the school, the Stanly County School District said in a statement, and the school cannot be seen to be endorsing a political campaign. Miller said having “2020” on the sign could have easily been interpreted as campaigning. The only time political posters and other printed materials are allowed is on election days, according to the Stanly County Board of Education’s Policy Code.

The cheerleaders have been asked to not display the sign again, but they haven’t been banned from cheering.

Jeremy Onitreb, who told The Washington Post in Facebook messages he is not a student and does not have any relationship with anyone on the cheer squad, is organizing a free-speech rally on Friday across from the school. As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 130 people have said they’re going and more than 950 people have said they’re interested in attending the event Onitreb created on Facebook.

“The truth is if there were a Bernie 2020 or Biden 2020 [sign] and conservatives complained, nothing would have been done at all,” Onitreb said. “It’s only because of the name Trump that there was ever an issue.”

Trump overwhelmingly won Stanly County in the 2016 presidential election, taking home 74 percent of the vote.

Miller said the school district will be monitoring the event as the days draw near to ensure safety.

The conversation around how much free speech students are allowed is more than 50 years old, said Sanford Ungar, director of the Free Speech Project at Georgetown University, a nonpartisan initiative that examines the state of free speech across the country.

He pointed to the Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District case as an example, where the court ruled students who wore black arm bands to protest the Vietnam War didn’t lose their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech when they stepped onto school grounds.

If the North Stanly High cheerleaders wanted to make a case and bring it to federal court, Ungar thinks the school district would lose.

“It would be very hard to prove that this was a substantial disruption,” he said, noting that private schools might be able to behave like Stanly County Board of Education because they’re not funded by the government.

Ungar said he’s seen a resurgence of similar rules because of the current political times.

Miller emphasized the students haven’t faced any disciplinary action, and she’d like for the students to be able to return to their normal lives.

“We really need to think about this and see the impact that it can have on these children,” she said. “If they’re under fire, they can’t be productive within the school building.”

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