Calif. court cuts school district's legal fees to former student for First Amendment lawsuit

CALIFORNIA — A California school district is getting hitwith a much cheaper legal bill after illegally censoring an article eight yearsago, an appeals court ruled last month.

Instead of the nearly $1.5 million legal bill initially requested by AndrewSmith –who penned an article in 2001 that was censored by administrators — a trial court ruled the Novato Unified School District will pay$336,350 in attorney fees. The California Court of Appeals in San Francisco,Calif., affirmed that decision May 28.

The only matter left to settle is the amount of interest the schooldistrict will be required to pay on that total, which a trial court will decidewithin a few months, said Stephan Birgel, who represented the schooldistrict.

Birgel said the reduced amount was “a good ruling,” noting hefelt the requested $1.5 million was “very unrealistic.” Birgel saidthe figure was high because the plaintiffs had included “a lot ofexcess,” including charging to rent cars, learning new trial technology,and claiming six hours of attorney fees for a one-page form.

The lawsuit stemmed from Smith’s 2001 editorial titled”Immigration” in the school’s newspaper, the Buzz.Smith criticized immigration laws, causing some students to protest.Then-Principal Lisa Schwartz quickly implemented prior review and postponed asecond column by Smith titled “Reverse Racism.”

In 2005, the Marin County Superior Court said school officials were rightin censoring Smith’s editorial. But the California Court of Appealsreversed the ruling, invoking California’s Education Code section 48907,which guarantees students have free expression rights in schools except with thespeech is “obscene, libelous or slanderous” or incites students tocreate a danger or disruption to the school’s operations.

The California Supreme Court denied the district’s appeal in 2007 andthe U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case in 2008.

After the district pays the legal fees, including the interest, the casewill be over, Birgel said.

Smith’s attorney, Paul Beard, and officials from the Novato UnifiedSchool District did not return calls for comment.