Gambino v. Fairfax County School Board

564 F.2d 157 (4th Cir. 1977)

The case began when the student editors of a school-sponsored newspaper in Virginia discovered through an informal survey that many students who were sexually active took no precautions to avoid pregnancy. In response, they prepared a news story that provided information about the forms of birth control available and their relative rates of effectiveness. The school principal balked, claiming the story would be in violation of a school policy that prohibited the teaching of sex education in the school. The students took their case to court, and both the federal district court and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the First Amendment had been violated.

The school claimed that the student newspaper was merely an “in-house organ of the school system, funded and sponsored by the Board [of Education]” and thus could not be considered a public forum. Most of the students on the newspaper staff were enrolled in a journalism class and received credit for their work. However, after considering the board’s general policy toward student publications (which allowed students to choose the topics they wished to include in their newspaper) and the articles that had been published in the newspaper in the past, the court agreed that the newspaper was a public forum for student expression.

“The extent of state involvement in providing funding and facilities for [the newspaper] does not determine whether First Amendment rights are applicable,” the court said. “[A]ccordingly, the general power of the Board to regulate course content does not apply.”

The Fourth Circuit also upheld the district court’s ruling that students are not a captive audience merely because of their compulsory attendance at the school.

This case is the only case in which the SPLC undertook individual representation of the student journalists. As part of an eventual settlement, the Fairfax County School District enacted a district student media policy based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1969 Tinker standard.

Read the opinion.