Calif. high school settles censorship lawsuit

CALIFORNIA — Fallbrook Union High School District in Fallbrook, Calif. — which censored the student newspaper, The Tomahawk, and thencanceled its journalism program and removed the journalism adviser who foughtthe censorship — has agreed to settle a lawsuit alleging violation of thestudent journalists’ free-speech rights.

The lawsuit was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of SanDiego and Imperial Counties and Student Press Law Center volunteerattorney Jean-Paul Jassy of Bostwick and Jassy LLP in Los Angeles, Calif.

Two items provoked the censorship: first, a news story about a dispute overwhether the district’s superintendent had refused to allow the school to be usedas a shelter during October 2007 wildfires, and second, an editorial critical ofa school assembly promoting abstinence-only sex education. When journalismadviser David Evans brought the censorship to the District’s attention, theschool’s then-principal, Rod King, cancelled the journalism class and removedEvans as adviser.

According to the ACLU, the proposed settlement requires the District to payEvans $7,500 and to reimburse the ACLU and Bostwick and Jassy LLP $20,000.

As a result of the lawsuit, new guidelines were implemented to protectstudent rights, the District made a commitment to keep the student paperrunning, and the former students most directly involved with the censoredstories — Daniela Rogulj, Chantal Ariosta and Margaret Dupes — willreceive a letter signed by the superintendent and principal acknowledging thatthey broke no school rules.

In March 2009, shortly after the lawsuit was filed, the school agreed toallow the previously censored content to run in the Tomahawk.

“This case is a victory for freedom of the student press,” saidDavid Blair-Loy, legal director for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties.”We owe an enormous debt to Dave Evans and the student plaintiffs forstanding up for free speech. The result of this case sends a clear messageto school districts and administrators all over California — you violatestudent speech rights at your peril.”

The resolution at Fallbrook High School is significant for the studentpress across California, Jassy said.

“Dave Evans and the students of Fallbrook High School are FirstAmendment heroes,” he said. “They fought back against unlawfulcensorship and helped to secure an important resolution for a free student pressin California.”

Student staff members indicated satisfaction with the settlement.

“Although it is unfortunate that this was not resolved immediately, I feelthat our prolonged pursuit of justice was most definitely worthwhile,” saidRogulj, who was editor of the Tomahawk during the controversy. “I believethat our efforts have set an example for students across the country to speaktheir minds and stand up for their rights.”

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