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US Supreme Court Protects California Student’s Freedom of Expression

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court held intact a ruling that said Novato school district officials violated a student’s freedom of expression when they confiscated a high school newspaper because of an editorial criticizing immigration. The case is Novato Unified School District vs. Smith, 07-783.

Freedom%20of%20Speech.jpgA California appeals court in San Francisco ruled last May, upholding a California law that protects freedom of the press in public schools even more strongly than the constitutional rights guaranteed under the First Amendment.

Tuesday’s Supreme Court order, which also denied a hearing sought by the Novato Unified School District, means that students in California “will be able to publish very controversial political opinions without fearing retribution,” said Paul Beard of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a lawyer for the student who wrote the editorial.

After some students and parents protested High school senior Andrew Smith’s editorial, school district officials pulled remaining copies of the newspaper out of circulation and sent a letter to parents saying the editorial shouldn’t have been published.

Along with his father, Smith sued in Marin County Superior Court, claiming that the district had illegally censored the piece and subjected him to public reprimand for expressing unpopular positions.

A judge dismissed the suit, noting that the editorial had been published and that the student hadn’t been disciplined. But the First District Court of Appeal said the district had violated Smith’s rights by confiscating the paper and sending the message to parents.

The appeals court said state law guarantees freedom of the press on campus unless an article is obscene or libelous, or unless it creates a clear and present danger of lawbreaking or disorder on campus.

The school district “succumbed to the fear of disruption and discontent” when it removed the newspaper from circulation, the state court said. Smith was awarded $1 and a declaration that his rights had been violated.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that public school officials could censor student newspapers and remove sensitive topics without violating the First Amendment. California, however, is one of about a half-dozen states with laws that explicitly protect student expression even if it is controversial.

If you are a California school administrator with a question about student/teacher safety, special education, accommodations, student rights, free speech or discipline, feel free to call Richard Oppenheim at 818-461-8500. There is never a charge for an initial consultation and we can help you choose the best direction to resolve any school district issue.