California school district bans certain ads in student publications

CALIFORNIA – A new policy at Roseville Joint Union High School District bans advertising content in student publications that supports political candidates, has religious symbols or promotes illegal activities.

The policy also requires that ads be “uncontroversial” and grants the superintendent the right to approve advertising content in school newspapers and yearbooks. The policy was last revised in 1978.

According to the California Education Code, the new restrictions are illegal, said Karl Grubaugh, who advises the Granite Bay High School Gazette. The code states, “Student editors… shall be responsible for assigning and editing the news, editorial and feature content,” which includes advertisements.

The board adopted the new policy Oct. 9 after advertisements at two of its school’s football fields received negative attention from parents and the local media. One of the ads promoted a local ammunition shop and another was for a local tattoo parlor, Grubaugh said.

Board trustees took the policy directly from the California School Boards Association’s list of model policies and didn’t modify it much, said Scott Huber, a local attorney and a board trustee.

The new policy threatens an increase in lawsuits from students who feel their First Amendment rights have been infringed upon as well as from advertisers who believe their religious expression has been marginalized, Grubaugh said.

“The irony of this whole thing is in their effort to reduce liability they are in fact increasing it with this policy,” he added.

“It’s also totally unnecessary” because student publications in the district already have a policy written by students 10 years ago, he said. Policies are reviewed every year and prohibit advertising that is libelous, obscene, constitutes an invasion of privacy or presents a disruption to school activities.

Students play a direct role in selling and selecting advertisements for the paper, which is why the liability is on them and not the school district, Grubaugh said.

The CSBA’s model policies are only meant to be guidelines, said Laurie Weidner. Even so, many school districts adopt the policies word-for-word. The Sacramento Bee found several other California school districts that use CSBA’s policy as well.

“The district should be evaluating policies based on their own culture and education priorities,” Weidner said.

“It’s classic overreach and lack of understanding by administrators,” Grubaugh said. “I said, ‘If you’re going to tweak a policy that’s been in place for 30 years and it’s going to affect student press rights across the district, I think it would be a pretty good idea to talk to the adults who are helping students exercise those press rights.’ ”

Journalism and yearbook advisers and the Student Press Law Center brought the issues to the school board’s attention in the two weeks following the policy’s adoption. Due to the criticism, the board is now expected to present a revised policy by Nov. 13.

“There is no intent on behalf of the administration or the school board to try and limit student speech or student journalistic efforts. None whatsoever,” Huber said. “The model policy that the California School Boards Association has for school districts misses the mark, and in my opinion it needs substantial revision.”

By Samantha Raphelson, SPLC staff writer. Contact Raphelson by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 126.