Smith v. Novato Unified School System

150 Cal. App. 4th 1439 (2007)

In the 2001-02 school year, Andrew Smith published two articles in the Novato High School newspaper that offended some members of the community. One was about illegal immigration and the other was about “reverse racism” and affirmative action. After students staged a walkout to protest the first article, the principal issued a statement apologizing for it and stating that it should not have been published. A day later, the school held a conference for parents where they said the same thing. At the same time, Smith was receiving threats of violence in addition to being stalked. A few days later, he was attacked and received a broken tooth. In light of the adverse reaction to the first article, the principal held the second article until a “counterpoint” could be written; ultimately, when nobody wrote a counterpoint, the article ran late.

Smith sued the school for violating California’s student free expression law, arguing that the school took action designed to punish Smith’s speech by stating that the illegal immigration commentary should not have been published. Additionally, Smith sued for the censorship involved in the delay of his “reverse racism” and affirmative action commentary. The Marion County Superior Court ruled in favor of the school district under the concept of fighting words, which gives officials the ability to censor speech that might cause immediate breach of the peace. The case was then appealed to the California Court of Appeal, First District, where the SPLC filed a brief along with the ACLU.

The First Amendment protects the expression of unpopular viewpoints against government retaliation, regardless of the form that retaliation takes. It would not matter if Smith’s school censored him, delayed his next submissions, sent letters home, or played loud music outside his classroom—all of these actions, when motivated by a dislike of the material he wrote, would be violations of California’s student free expression law.

The appellate court agreed, reversing the trial court and ruling in favor of Smith, finding that his editorial was protected speech and the district violated his First Amendment rights.

Read the decision.