ACLU considers taking action against Ohio high school over obituary censorship

OHIO — The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio isthreatening to take legal action against administrators if they continue toforce the censorship of an obituary and photograph of a recently deceasedstudent in the student newspaper of Stow-Munroe Falls High School.

After being contacted by Stohion Editor-in-Chief Lyndsey Sager, theACLU sent a letter to school officials spelling out the students’ rightsand requiring a response to the letter by Tuesday before further action would betaken. Sager thinks it would be disrespectful to the deceased student and hisfamily to not run the obituary and photograph, as has been done for otherdeceased students.

Carrie Davis, staff counsel at the ACLU said the ACLU maintains that bypreventing The Stohion from running the obituary and photograph, schooladministrators have violated the students’ First Amendment rights, sincethe paper has always been run as a forum, and practice determines status.

The Stohion has always been a student-runpublication,” Davis said. “The school doesn’t make andhistorically has not made content decision. The students make all the contentdecisions, all the editorial decisions, they seek all the sponsors andadvertisements; it is entirely student run.”

In response to the ACLU’s letter, school officials claimed in awritten reply that the standard set by the 1988 decision in the Supreme Courtcase Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier applied to their case, and that the principalis permitted to censor the paper as such, Davis said. But when a high schoolpublication has been run completely by students in practice, it is, in a sense,removed from the limitations of the Hazelwood context and established asa limited public forum, according to Davis.

“It’s a very high standard for the school to be able toexercise any content control under a limited public forum,” Davissaid.

The situation began in October, when Stow-Munroe Falls Principal SusanSchur required removal of the obituary and photograph of a recent studentsuicide victim from The Stohion, though it had always been thepaper’s practice to run both elements, according to Sager. Schur continuesto be unwilling to back down.

“There were two suicides in 2005 that both received full pages andthe administration had no problem with that,” Sager said.

The ACLU disagrees with the administration’s reading of the law, andis currently evaluating what its next step will be.