PRESS RELEASE: SPLC, Journalism Groups Urge Appeals Court to Overturn High School Censorship Case

The Student Press Law Center and two nationaljournalism organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief today urging afederal appeals court to overturn a ruling that upheld the censorship of acartoon that was critical of a New York high school’s teaching methods forsex education.

The SPLC, joined by the Journalism EducationAssociation and National Scholastic Press Association, filed the amicus brief inthe Second U.S. Court of Appeals supporting the former Ithaca High Schoolstudents’ First Amendment right to publish the cartoon. The case, R.O.,et al., v. Ithaca City School District, has been ongoing since2005.

The cartoon parodied a health class that is amandatory for all students. The cartoon, a satirical commentary about theschool’s sex education curriculum, shows a woman standing at a chalkboardand barely discernible stick figures in various sexual positions. The cartoonwould have accompanied an article that was published which examined theschool’s sex education teaching methods, including the use of comicalskits that promoted abstinence.

The school administration censored the cartoon in twopublications — the official campus newspaper, The Tattler, and astudent-funded independent newspaper, The March Issue.

“If the Court tells the students of IthacaHigh School that they had no legally protected right to satirize theineffectiveness of a school policy — the effectiveness of which the schoolitself is telling this Court is a matter of life and death — then the’chill’ of intimidation that studentjournalists already feel when they bravely take up a critical pen against theirelders will turn into a deep freeze,” the brief states.

The brief was prepared and filed on behalf of theSPLC, JEA and NSPA by Joseph P. Esposito, Thomas C. Goodhue, Ian Conner andDennis Gucciardo of Hunton & Williams in Washington, D.C., one of thenation’s leading media-law and litigation firms with 18 offices throughoutthe United States, Europe and Asia.

“It sends a strong message that the SPLC, theJEA and the NSPA came together to sound the alarm that this case goes far beyondthe issue of one political cartoon. The district court’s approachdangerously expands the ability of school administrators to censor speechcritical of their policies, even if the speech is created on students’off-hours and not subsidized by the school at all,” said attorney Frank D.LoMonte, executive director of the SPLC.

LoMonte said the district court erroneously relied ontwo Supreme Court precedents that do not apply to The Tattler or TheMarch Issue. The first case, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier(1988), applies only to school-funded curricular publications, while both TheTattler and The March Issue were extracurricular. The second case,Morse v. Frederick (2007), applies only to speech encouraging illegaldrug use, not to criticism of school policies. “The effect of the districtcourt’s ruling is to say that schools can suppress any speech by labelingit ‘harmful.’ That’s not the law, and the Second Circuit needsto say so unequivocally,” LoMonte said.

Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has beendevoted to educating high school and college journalists about the rights andresponsibilities embodied in the First Amendment, and supporting the studentnews media in covering important issues free from censorship. The Centerprovides free information and educational materials for student journalists andtheir teachers on a wide variety of legal topics.

The JEA is an organization of nearly 2,600 high schooljournalism teachers and advisers who teach reporting and journalistic skills tothe nation’s scholastic journalists. The NSPA is a nonprofit educationalassociation that provides journalism education services to students, teachers,media advisers and others throughout the United States.