School district asks Iowa Supreme Court to weigh in on state’s ‘anti-Hazelwood’ law

An Iowa school district is appealing a decision that was hailed last month as a landmark for student press freedom.

The Iowa Court of Appeals’ Nov. 9 decision held that the state’s “anti-Hazelwood” law provides broad protection for student journalists. The court ruled in favor of former high school journalism adviser Ben Lange and ordered the school district to remove two reprimands in his personnel file.

Lange found himself in hot water after his students published a parody April Fools Day issue of their student newspaper containing humor that irked some readers.

The Allamakee Community School District on Monday filed a “petition for further review” asking the Iowa Supreme Court to take up the case.

As the SPLC reported in November, the appeals court held that the Iowa Student Free Expression Law provides broader rights for student journalists than does the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hazelwood decision. The court found that the law protected the Allamakee students’ work and thus it was impermissible to punish Lange.

In its petition, the school district argues that the parody April Fools stories were unprotected under an exception to the Iowa law that permits censorship of stories that “encourage” lawless behavior. Specifically, the district contends that some of the stories encouraged students to violate school rules; the appeals court found that merely joking about smoking or steroids was not equivalent to “encouraging” the behavior.

“[T]he statute proscribes materials which simply encourage, or give support to, violation of lawful school regulations without a conjunctive requirement of a resultant material and substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school,” according to the district’s petition.

The Iowa high court will decide whether to hear the case or let the appeals court ruling stand. It typically announces those decisions about once per month.

(For a discussion of the case with Ben Lange’s attorney, listen to the SPLC’s November 2011 podcast.)