Censorship of Conservative Club posters in Massachusetts ruled illegal

Alawsuit alleging that a high school illegally censored a conservative club’sflier — which referred to a Web site with links to photos of Iraqis beheadingan American — will continue, a federal judge ruled Oct. 4.

In denying the Town of Hudson’s request to dismiss the case, U.S. DistrictJudge Patti B. Saris ruled that the town did not produce “evidence that thevideos were reasonably likely to result in a substantial interference with theoperation of the school” and therefore “Tinker does not support censorship ofthe posters.”

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SPLC View: There are a number of important parts to this decision.First — and of the most practical value for student media — is the court’sfinding in this case that merely publishing a URL address to another Web site,even a site that that contains links to “graphic and disturbing” material, willgenerally not be sufficient to warrant administrative censorship. In most casesthis court said that simply publishing a Web site’s address does not create thesort of serious disruption of school that the law requires.

As the court noted: “When students are exposed to speech only as aconsequence of voluntary choice [in this case, entering the URL in their privateWeb browser], the speaker has not invaded the rights of others.” (Parentheticaladded.) Second, the court reaffirmed that Massachusetts’ student free expressionlaw, Mass. Gen. Laws Chpt. 71, Sec. 82 — unlike the First Amendment in somecases — does not allow school officials in the state to censor arguably vulgar,lewd, or offensive language absent a showing ofdisruption within theschool.

Case: Bowler v. Town of Hudson, No. 05-11007, 2007 WL 2874393 (D.Mass. Oct. 4, 2007).