Mich. school district violated First Amendment by pulling story, court rules

DETROIT — A federal judge ruled Tuesday that a school district violated the First Amendment when it censored a story from a high school newspaper, capping a two-year-old lawsuit filed by a former student against Utica Community Schools.

U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow in a verbal decision called the school district’s decision to censor an article in the Utica High School Arrow — because of so-called factual errors and lack of balance — “indefensible.”

The article, written in 2002 by then-senior Katy Dean, covered a lawsuit that was filed against the school district by a Shelby Township resident. The resident claimed that diesel fumes from idling buses at the district’s garage caused his lung cancer.

Dean, with the help of attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union, filed suit against the Utica Community Schools and Superintendent Joan Sergent in April 2003, claiming Dean’s First Amendment rights were violated when the article was pulled.

Dean’s lawyer, Andrew Nickelhoff, said the judge’s motion to grant summary judgment in Dean’s favor was based on a laundry list of disagreements Tarnow had with the district’s position.

Most importantly, Nickelhoff said, Tarnow found that The Arrow was a limited public forum, and thus the district’s ability to censor it was very limited. He also found that the school could not justify its decision to censor the news story under the “legitimate pedagogical concerns” standard of the Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision, Nickelhoff said.

“He just rejected [the district’s reasons] one by one,” he said.

Tarnow is expected to file a written version of his bench motion within a month. The decision will include an order to the school to publish the article with a statement that Dean’s rights had been violated. Dean, who could not be reached for comment, is a sophomore at Wayne State University.

School district officials and attorneys could not be reached for comment.

Nickelhoff said he does not know whether the school district plans to pursue an appeal.

Nickelhoff said he hopes the decision will clarify the scope and limited applicability of the Hazelwood ruling.

“There’s not a lot of law in this area,” he said. “Getting guidance from a court about the First Amendment rights of student journalists is useful for the students and also for the schools themselves.”

ACLU of Michigan Executive Director Kary Moss said Dean’s piece met high journalistic standards.

“Judge Tarnow’s decision recognizes that student journalists don’t forfeit their First Amendment rights when they write for school newspapers,” Moss said in a news release.

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