ACLU sues Mich. high school for holding bus fumes article

The American CivilLiberties Union of Michigan filed a lawsuit April 4 on behalf of a Utica HighSchool student journalist who was censored last spring for reporting onresidents’ claims that diesel fumes from idling school busses were causinghealth dangers.

Katherine Dean, currently a senior and managing editor ofthe Utica High School Arrow, is claiming in her suit that Utica CommunitySchools and Superintendent Joan Sergent violated her First Amendment rights whenthey withheld her article from the Arrow.

The censored articlereported on a lawsuit filed by Shelby Township residents who lived next to theschool district’s bus depot. Resident Ray Frances asserted in the suit thatexhaust fumes from idling school buses caused his lung cancer.

Dean’sarticle was supported by Arrow adviser Gloria Olman, but was held frompublication March 7, 2002, by Principal Richard Machesky who claimed itcontained inaccuracies. The staff appealed Machesky’s decision to the districtlevel, but Sergent upheld it.

Michael Steinberg, legal director for theMichigan ACLU, said, “I thought it was an outstanding article, high journalisticstandards. The reason it was censored was not because of her writing or her lackof research but rather because it had the potential to embarrass theschool.”

Administrators at Utica Community Schools have argued thatthe Arrow is a school-sponsored, curriculum-based publication over whichthe school can exercise “a great deal of control.” Arrow staff memberssay the paper has a long history of freedom from administrative review andcensorship.

Dean said she is “ecstatic” that the ACLU has filed the case.”I still feel that if an article is newsworthy and truthful then it needs to beprinted,” she said.

SPLC View: While filing a lawsuit – particularly in ahigh school censorship case – is never one’s first choice, we’re delighted tosee that this one is finally underway. In the 15 years since Hazelwoodwas handed down, this case presents one of the best opportunities we’ve seen tomake clear that there are limits on administrators’ ability to censor a highschool-sponsored student newspaper.

The facts are excellent. Not only isthe censored story journalistically sound, but the program at Utica High Schoolhas long been one of the strongest in the country. While it’s never asure-thing, we believe the students have the evidence to demonstrate that theArrow, which can point to both a policy and a practice of allowing studentsto make their own editorial decisions, operates as a public forum. Such afinding would make it unlikely that a court would uphold the school’scensorship. Alternatively, even if the court does not find the paper to be apublic forum, school officials are going to be hard-pressed, we think, to showthat they had a reasonable educational justification for their censorship, whichis the minimum standard required of public high school officials who seek tocensor their student newspapers.

We are grateful to Michigan ACLUvolunteer attorney Andrew Nicklehoff, of the law firm Sachs, Waldman, O’Hare& McIntosh, for agreeing to provide free representation to the Arrowstaff. 
Once again, fingers crossed everyone.