San Diego school district settles free speech lawsuit, adopts new 'senior benches' policy

CALIFORNIA — TheSan Diego Unified School District has a new student free speech policy aftersettling a lawsuit involving senior benches at La Jolla High School.

The new policy states, “students may display messages on thebulletin board immediately southwest of the Senior Benches and/or the ‘SeniorBenches’… Students are not required to ask the administration to reviewmessages they intend to post on the bulletin board and/or paint on the SeniorBenches.”

In 2011, La Jolla High School senior YumehikoHoshijima filed a lawsuit against principalDana Shelburne and SDUSD for allegedly violating his First Amendment rights.Hoshijima painted “Freedom for Iran and LJHS” and “Ed. Code 48907” on theschool’s senior benches, but Shelbourne ordered the benches painted overbecause the speech was not positive about LJHS.

Claiming the reason was too vague, the San Diego American CivilLiberties Union and the law firm Bostwick & Jassy LLP challenged thedecision on Hoshijima’s behalf. After the lawsuit was filed, Shelbourne decidedto remove the benches. In May 2011, the parties agreed to a preliminary injunction keeping the benches in place during the lawsuit.

Under the agreement announced this month, the schooldistrict is also required to pay Hoshijima’s attorneys fees – totaling $22,500.

San Diego ACLU Legal Director David Loy said once thelawsuit was filed, the school district was quick to come to the table and bothsides reached a beneficial settlement.

A district spokeswoman said she was not familiar enough withthe issue to comment. As part of the settlement agreement, the district admitsno wrongdoing.

“I think this is a signal to anybody in a similarsituation,” Loy said. “District administrators, principals, teachers, mustrespect the forum for speech that is created by California Education Code48907. It empowers students to speak and guarantees schools provide some forumfor student speech with school sponsored facilities.” 

Based on tradition and “longstanding custom,” the seniorbenches served as an open forum for student free speech, according toHoshijima’s lawsuit.

Under the new policy, messages on the benches are studentcontrolled with no specific time limits on how long speech may be posted beforebeing painted over or removed. The benches are protected for five years.According to the agreement, “SDUSD and its officers, agents, employees and anyperson or persons acting on its behalf shall refrain and hereby agree andpromise to refrain from demolishing, removing, or altering the Senior Benchesor closing them to student speech…”

Loy said he is very happy in how the situation was resolvedand thinks this case will serve as an example to other districts that try tocontrol student speech.

“It wasn’t the message but the control of the forum,” Loysaid. “They didn’t want political messages on the forum.”