SPLC Defends Iowa’s Student Free Expression Law in State Supreme Court Brief

The Student Press Law Center (“SPLC”) filed afriend-of-the-court brief today urging the Iowa Supreme Court to reverse a lowercourt’s ruling that upheld disciplinary sanctions against a high schooljournalism teacher based on his students’ humor in an April Fool’s parodynewspaper – a ruling that endangers Iowa’s Student Free Expression Law.

In the case, officials of an Iowa school district contend –and a state trial-court judge accepted – that a school can suppress or punishsuch mild editorial content as a photograph of a student wearing a headband ora hooded sweatshirt, apparel that violates school dress codes.

“This is a brief filed on April 1 that is largely about theApril Fool’s parody edition of a student newspaper, but unfortunately, theDistrict Court’s ruling is no laughing matter,” said attorney Frank D. LoMonte,executive director of the SPLC, who authored the brief with SPLC attorneysLaura Napoli and Adam Goldstein. “The ruling in this case lowers the bar forcensorship so drastically that it could become a punishable offense even tomention words like ‘steroids’ in a student publication.”

Waukon High School adviser Ben Lange was reprimanded overtwo issues of his students’ newspaper, TheTribune, including the April 2, 2008, humor edition that contained photosof a student wearing a headband and another wearing a hooded sweatshirt toaccompany parody stories. Lange’s principal, Dan Diercks, took issue withmultiple stories and images in that paper, as well as a photo illustration of achild holding a cigarette that accompanied an anti-tobacco story published onSept. 30, 2008.

Lange initiated the case in Allamakee County District Courtto overturn the discipline and clear his record, contending that he was beingunlawfully punished for speech that he was forbidden from stopping under theIowa Student Free Expression Law. Diercks and his employer, the AllamakeeCommunity School District, contend that the newspapers were not legallyprotected speech, because the photos and the newspaper’s joking mentions ofsuch matters as steroid use and drugs equated to “encouraging” unlawfulbehavior. The administrators even contended – and the District Court agreed –that the mock name of the parody edition (“TheBribe-Une”) was unprotected speech, because, in their opinion, use of theword “bribe” encouraged students to commit bribery.

In 1989, Iowa responded to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier,which reduced the First Amendment rights afforded to student journalists, byenacting the Iowa Student Free Expression Law. The law, Iowa Code 280.22,restores the pre-Hazelwood level ofprotection for students in public schools, by providing that schools mayrestrain speech only if it is obscene or otherwise illegal, or if it threatensto provoke a substantial disruption, or the violation of law or schoolregulations. Lange’s case is the first time the Student Free Expression Law hasbeen tested in the Iowa Supreme Court.

In a Jan. 13, 2011 ruling, District Court Judge David F.Staudt sided with the school district and dismissed Lange’s case. Judge Staudtruled that the Iowa Student Free Expression Law merely reaffirmed – notreversed – the impact of Hazelwood,and did not give students any more rights than the minimal level of protectionrecognized in that 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case.

“Iowa has one of the oldest and best laws reversing thedamage done by Hazelwood andrestoring a sensible balance between authority and freedom,” LoMonte said. “TheDistrict Court’s decision upsets that carefully crafted balance and rolls backthe civil rights of young people in a way that, if not reversed, will enableschools to punish discussion of anything even mildly controversial.”

Among the arguments made by the school district, andaccepted by the lower court, is that the content of the April Fool’s Day issuewas not protected by the Student Free Expression Law because some students wereoverheard talking about one of the articles and “were not concentrating onlearning.”

“[I]t is the school’s contention – a contention fully anduncritically accepted by the District Court – that students’ journalistic workmay be suppressed or punished merely because it will cause readers to talkabout it. If that is to be the standard – if speech is unprotected because itprovokes discussion – then the First Amendment will have been read out ofexistence in Iowa’s schools,” the SPLC wrote in its brief.

The case is Lange v.Diercks, Iowa Supreme Court No. 11-191.

Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been devoted toeducating 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 Center providesfree information and educational materials for student journalists and theirteachers on a wide variety of legal topics.

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