Student sues Calif. school, says 'senior bench' is a public forum

CALIFORNIA — Adebate about student expression rights has exploded at La Jolla High Schoolsurrounding what are known as “senior benches,” where students have oftenscrolled messages to each other and to the community.

La Jolla High School senior Yumehiko Hoshijima filed alawsuit last month against Shelburne and the San Diego Unified School Districtalleging they violated his rights by restricting political messages painted onthe bench. Principal Dana Shelburne decided to simply remove the benches, butHoshijima requested a temporary restraining order against their removal.

Shelburne argued the benches are subject to administratorreview and are reserved for particular types of speech, specificallyschool-related speech, but students are crying foul.

Last Thursday, both parties entered a stipulated preliminaryinjunction agreeing that the benches will stay in place and be available forstudent expression throughout the trial. According to a press release from theAmerican Civil Liberties Union, the ruling also prevents students from beingpunished for writing on the benches.

“We just agreed to maintain the status quo,” said AndraDonovan, deputy general counsel for San Diego Unified School District.

In March, after students painted messages supportingFebruary’s anti-government protests in Iran, including the phrase “Freedom forIran,” Principal Dana Shelburne, a former journalism and English teacher,ordered the messages painted over.

The following day, Hoshijima repainted a similar message,with a particular focus on his own school: “Freedom for Iran and LJHS.”Hoshijima also painted the phrase “Ed. Code 48907,” a reference to a Californiastatute protecting student expression. These messages were also removed.

Hoshijima’s lawsuit claims Shelburne violated his rights byrestricting speech on what he claims had previously been an open forum “bylongstanding custom, practice, and tradition,” according to the complaint filedwith the San Diego Superior Court. He also argues that prior to theseincidents, the school had never communicated any policy regarding messages onthe benches.

Shelburne countered in a declaration to the court that thebenches had never been intended to host open speech and discussion and deniedthat the benches were open forums “by custom or practice.”

Instead, he claimed that even before he became principal,“the three Senior Benches identified by [Hoshijima] were reserved, by agreementwith the Associated Student Body of the High School, for student-to-studentcommunications on school and personal events.”

Rather than use the senior benches for political speech,Shelburne said there are two bulletin boards open to students that are open tomore types of speech, including the “Freedom for Iran” message.

Both Hoshijima and Shelburne declined interviews for thisstory due to the ongoing nature of the case.

Jean-Paul Jassy, one of Hoshijima’s attorneys, said the casewill continue as planned now that the status of the benches for the duration ofthe trial has been decided. He expects Shelburne and the district to respond toHoshijima’s complaint and then to proceed with discovery.

“We’re hopeful that there’s a possibility that the partiescan work out a resolution of the matter, but unless and until that happens, wewill proceed with the case,” Jassy said.

Jassy is also a graduate of La Jolla High School, class of1992. He volunteered to assist with the case when David Blair-Loy, legaldirector of the San Diego and Imperial Counties ACLU, mentioned the recentevents at La Jolla High School to him.

“He told me what was going on – I was not happy about it,”Jassy said. “I didn’t like the idea at all that my alma mater was what Ithought was infringing on the rights of students at La Jolla High School… Icare about what happens to the students at La Jolla High School and I careabout their rights and I want to make sure that they are defended.”