Mass. school revises student free-expression policy

MASSACHUSETTS — The Amherst Regional School Committee has made its student free-expression policy more First Amendment friendly after a student was suspended for distributing his underground newspaper.

On Oct. 8 the committee voted 8-1 in favor of revising the policy in order to “highly recommend” rather than “require” students to provide material to administrators for prior approval before distributing it at school.

The policy change comes after Amherst Regional High School senior Max Karson was suspended twice since last February for distributing his controversial underground paper, The Crux, on school grounds. Both suspensions, including the latest one last month, were revoked soon after questions were raised regarding the constitutionality of the school’s policy of prior approval.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Western Massachusetts came to the defense of Karson’s free-speech rights following each suspension and assisted the school committee in revising the policy.

“By and large, [the committee] made a good faith attempt to comply with the intent of Massachusetts Student Free Expression Law,” said William Newman, director the ACLU of Western Massachusetts.

The state law, passed in 1988, provides students attending public high schools with free-speech protection against administrative censorship, which was permitted under the First Amendment by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier earlier that year.

The Massachusetts Student Free Expression Law holds that students only can be punished if their speech is proven to be libelous, obscene or has caused a material disruption of classes. At least 50 Amherst teachers expressed concern over what they believe is the high school’s inability to enforce school policies on obscenity and disruption in light of Massachusetts’ protection of student speech.

The teachers were offended by the latest issue of The Crux, in which Karson discussed pornography and mentioned a student and administrators in a sexual context. In a letter to The Graphic, the school’s official student newspaper, the teachers argued that the public school should be able to expect its students to exercise their free-speech rights “reasonably and responsibly,” regardless of how much their free expression is protected.