By: Mark Fitzgerald
In a victory for high school journalists, the California Supreme Court let stand an appeals court ruling that schools cannot censor controversial speech in student media.
The high court Thursday declined to review the appellate court ruling in a lawsuit that former Novato High School student journalist Andrew Smith filed against the Novato Unified School District after administrators publicly condemned two columns he wrote for the school paper, and tried to confiscate all copies of the offending pieces.
The decision is important because it upholds the state’s so-called “anti-Hazelwood” law that was intended to restore student free-expression rights in the wake of the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. In that case, the high court ruled essentially that school administrators are publishers of student media with the same power to direct or spike material that any publisher of a non-government newspaper has.
Smith alleged the school district violated California’s Education Code, which in part states that “school districts … shall not make or enforce any rule subjecting high school pupils to disciplinary actions solely on the basis of conduct that is speech or other communication that, when engaged in outside of the campus” is protected by the First Amendment and California’s state constitutional guarantees of free speech.
The Novato school district had an even more simply stated code of student First Amendment rights. “Students have the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press and have the right to expression in official publications,” it code said.
At issue in the case were two columns written by Smith for the school paper called The Buzz when he was a senior in 2001. Most controversial was the first column about immigration. Smith urged police to roundup as many illegal immigrants as possible, and wrote that it could be simply done:
“It can’t be hard to find and detain the people who can’t speak English. If a person looks suspicious than just stop them and ask a few questions, and if they answer ‘que?,’ detain them and see if they are legal.”
The column created a stir in the Marin County school, and a day after its publication students and some parents marched on the campus in protest. Though the principal had reviewed and approved the article beforehand, the schools superintendent ordered the confiscation of all undistributed copies of the paper. A letter was sent to school parents saying the article had violated both the Novato and California codes of student speech. The school also convened a public meeting in which, according to Smith’s lawsuit, the student was denounced and reprimanded.
Smith’s cause was taken up by the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), a politically conservative-oriented group that was searching for a case involving the censorship of “politically incorrect” speech on high school campuses. PLF was joined in amicus briefs by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C.
Smith lost in state district court, but the appellate court declared that state law “mandates that a school may not prohibit student speech simply because it presents controversial ideas and opponents of the speech are likely to cause disruption.” Smith’s case was the subject of an E&P online column in May.
Thursday’s decision “delivered a powerful blow against ‘politically correct’ censorship in California public schools,” PLF attorney Paul J. Beard II said in a statement. “There is no question now that thought codes cannot be imposed on student journalists in this state.”