ACLU, SPLC file lawsuit against Calif. high school over canceled student newspaper

CALIFORNIA — Lawyers for the Student Press Law Center and theAmerican Civil Liberties Union are filing a lawsuit on behalf of students and ateacher at Fallbrook High School in Fallbrook, Calif., claiming that the schoolviolated their First Amendment rights by canceling the journalism class andremoving the adviser.

Four students and the adviser, David Evans, said that the school’sprincipal, Rod King, censored two articles in the Tomahawk studentnewspaper that were critical of the school district. One article concernedwhether the district’s superintendent had refused to allow the school to be usedas a shelter during the October 2007 wildfires and the other was an editorialcritical of a school assembly promoting abstinence-only sex education.

After Evans brought the issue up with a member of the Fallbrook Union HighSchool District school board, King canceled the journalism class and removedEvans as the paper’s adviser, making the newspaper an after-school,extracurricular activity.

The student plaintiffs include the authors of the articles and severalstudents who had signed up for the class for this school year. Evans said thatthey decided to sue after attempts to negotiate with King and the districtfailed.

“We decided to go through with the case because the district has taken ahard-line despite its illegal conduct,” he said. “In short, there’s nowillingness for them to come to terms with their wrongdoing.”

Evans also noted that the new extracurricular journalism program has yet toproduce a newspaper.

“They’re calling it an after-school extracurricular program, but I have notseen any product of any type nor has anyone else,” he said.

The plaintiffs are seeking an acknowledgement of the rights of thestudents, the reinstatement of journalism as a credited course in the curriculumand the reinstatement of Evans as the journalism teacher.

David Blair-Loy, legal director of the ACLU of San Diego and ImperialCounties, cited California state laws that protect the rights of studentjournalists.

“I believe that the district and the principal have violated studentsrights to freedom of speech and freedom of press, and long story short, we wantthem to fix the problem,” said Blair-Loy.

Dale Mitchell, superintendent of the Fallbrook Union High School District,said that the district does not believe that King did anything wrong in relationto the Tomahawk.

“The district does not concur with the ACLU in terms of the allegationsthat they made,” he said.

Evans said that the SPLC was able to find legal counsel for him and thestudents early on in the case, and that he is thankful for the organization’shelp.

“SPLC has been instrumental for moving us forward in this process, andwe’re very, very grateful,” he said.