LOS ANGELES – The ACLU of Southern California, the Student Press Law Center and the law firm Caldwell Leslie Newcombe & Pettit submitted a friend of the court brief with the California Court of Appeal today in support of the free speech rights of student journalists.
“California law does not permit school districts to censor student speech simply to avoid controversy or because the speech is unpopular or even offensive,” said ACLU/SC staff attorney Christine P. Sun. “Instead of stifling debate over controversial topics, school officials should support and encourage students to consider ideas that are different from their own.”
Andrew D. Smith, a former student at Novato High School and current U.S. Marine, authored two opinion pieces for his school’s student newspaper, The Buzz. The articles were originally approved by the school principal, but after publication school officials confiscated copies of The Buzz and said the editorials violated school policy after other students and parents complained about the content of the articles. Smith sued the school district and the Superior Court issued a ruling against him, which, if not reversed, will almost certainly chill future speech by sending the message that school officials can prevent or punish students for publishing certain views, Sun said.
Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center said this case is important because even though Smith’s articles were provocative – one expressed unfavorable opinions about Latino immigrants and a second piece repeated numerous unflattering racial stereotypes in support of an argument against affirmative action – California law does not favor one brand of political speech over another.
“Andrew Smith’s speech – while offensive to many in his community – was nonetheless speech on matters of public concern and thus entitled to the highest level of protection,” Goodman said. “Andrew’s experience of censorship is not an isolated one – the Student Press Law Center receives requests for assistance from hundreds of high schools students each year who are being censored or punished by school officials for expressing unpopular or ‘politically incorrect’ ideas.”
The amicus brief cites both the California Constitution and California statutory law that expressly provide that high school students the same rights to free speech and freedom of the press as they have outside school.
The brief states that: “Consistent with these rights, school administrators have a duty to protect the right of students to express unpopular views (even when school administrators may disagree with those views) to avoid chilling not only that student’s speech, but the speech of any student who might express a controversial view.”
The case, Smith v. Novato Unified School District, is also significant because the ACLU of Southern California is seeking a similar ruling in Bakersfield. The ACLU brought that case on behalf of students and student journalists at East Bakersfield High School who were prohibited by the principal from running articles about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students on campus. While the articles were eventually published last year, the students are seeking a court order to ensure similar censorship is not repeated in the future.
Attorneys contributing to the amicus brief include Sun, of the ACLU of Southern California, and Linda Burrow and Stephanie Christensen of Caldwell Leslie Newcombe & Pettit.
Smith v. Novato Unified Sch. Dist., No. A112083 (Cal. Ct. App. filed Oct. 6, 2005), appealing from No. CV022210 (Marin Super. Ct. Aug. 26, 2005).