Michigan school district violated First Amendment by pulling ‘bus fumes’ story, court rules

In perhaps the most important high school censorship cases in over a decade, a federal judge ruled Oct. 12 that a Michigan 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 an unwritten decision called the school district’s decision to censor an article in the Utica High School Arrow “indefensible.”

The article, written in 2002 by then-senior Katy Dean, reported on 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 were a cause of his lung cancer.

Dean, with the help of attorneys from the Michigan ACLU, 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 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 and dismissed the schools claim that the article contained factual errors and lacked editorial balance, Nickelhoff said.

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

Tarnow is expected to file a written version of his bench opinion 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 is a sophomore at Wayne State University.

Nickelhoff said he does not know whether the school district plans to pursue an appeal. School district officials and their attorneys could not be reached for comment.

SPLC View: It is not a stretch to say that this is the victory America’s high school student media have been hoping for since 1988. Among other things, this ruling makes clear that the Supreme Court’s Hazlewood decision, handed down that year, does not provide school officials with an unlimited license to censor.

This decision builds on the momentum of a key Ohio ruling last year where a court created something of a checklist for distinguishing nonpublic forum student media, which are subject to the less protective Hazelwood standard, from limited public forum student media, which are entitled to much stronger First Amendment protection. But where the Ohio judge simply pointed out the First Amendment still had brakes that could – in the right case – be used to limit censorship of high school student media, the judge in this case slammed those brakes down hard. Not only did the judge find that The Arrow was a limited public forum, he also said that even if it were not, Utica school officials would still lose. He acknowledged what many journalism educators and their advocates have said since this case began: Dean’s story was well-researched and well-written. The judge rejected administrators’ claims to the contrary and ruled that even under Hazelwood’s more permissive censorship standard, district officials had no reasonable educational justification for censoring the story. The ruling puts some teeth into an admittedly vague legal standard that, until now, has emboldened many school officials to censor at their whim.

Utica High School administrators have not said whether they will appeal the district court’s ruling and much may depend on the judge’s written decision, expected within the next few weeks. Still, Judge Tarnow’s ruling could be the first step in restoring some balance to the law, which, up until now, has been of limited help to many high school student media programs. In the meantime, the Student Press Law Center has waited a long time for a ruling like this; student media everywhere should take a moment to celebrate.