Iowa Supreme Court lets adviser’s ‘anti-Hazelwood’ victory stand

The Iowa Supreme Court on Thursday decided not to take up the case of a high school journalism adviser who was reprimanded over newspaper content. The move lets stand a November appeals court decision in the adviser’s favor which held that Iowa’s student free expression law provides broad protection for student journalists.

Former adviser Ben Lange sued the Allamakee Commmunity School District and principal Dan Diercks in 2010 after Lange received two reprimands over stories that appeared in the student newspaper at Waukon High School. Diercks objected to an April Fools’ edition of the Tribe-une and a story about student tobacco use, but Lange argued that the state’s student expression law prevented him from censoring the material.

A trial court sided with the school district, holding that the Iowa law provides no greater protection for student journalists than the Supreme Court’s Hazelwood decision, and that school officials can control content for any legitimate educational reason.

The appeals court rejected that view, however, and held that the Iowa law gives students expanded press freedom. It ruled that advisers cannot be disciplined for refusing to censor student publications protected under the law.

The state high court on Thursday denied a “petition for further review” from the school district. As a result, the Court of Appeals’ decision is final, and the school must remove the reprimands from Lange’s personnel file.

Superintendent Dave Herold had no comment Monday.

Lange still works for the district, though he no longer advises the newspaper. Lange’s attorney, Jay Hammond of the Iowa State Education Association, said the new assignment was not in retaliation for the lawsuit.

“We’re happy that the Supreme Court denied review because that allows the Court of Appeals’ decision to stand as law in this case,” Hammond said.

Thursday’s development should bring the lawsuit to an end. Lange did not seek any money damages from the school district, and each side will pay its own legal fees. Hammond said he will have Lange’s file checked to make sure the reprimands are removed.

The case represents the first test of Iowa’s “anti-Hazelwood” law, passed in 1989. Six other states have similar laws providing enhanced free press rights to high school journalists.