Burch v. Barker

861 F.2d 1149 (9th Cir. 1988)

As the 1983 school year wound down at Lindbergh High School in Renton, Washington, five seniors decided to print an underground newspaper. The student printed 350 copies of Bad Astra off-campus with their own funds and the students distributed the paper at a senior barbecue. One of the senior’s parents also distributed the newspaper in faculty and staff mailboxes at the school. The paper included articles criticizing the school administration, poems, and a mock teacher evaluation poll. The Renton school district had in place a policy that required students submit to the administration any written material they planned to distribute at school for prior review. Though school administration did not take offense with the content of Bad Astra, the principal censured the students and placed letters of reprimand in their files nonetheless for violating this policy.

The students brought suit in district court for violation of their freedom of speech. The district court found that Bad Astra did not “disturb school discipline or harm others,” but that student written publications could potentially have these disruptive effects. Since all student written material has the potential to disrupt the educational process, the district court reasoned, a rule that required a review of all student written material did not violate the First Amendment.

The court of appeals reversed the district court’s ruling and found in favor of the students. Following precedent established in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), the court held that a school administration’s “undifferentiated fear” of a disruption is not enough to censor a publication not affiliated with the school. Rather, the school must prove that the independent publication caused a substantial disruption to the educational process. In this case, Bad Astra did not cause a substantial disruption. The court also found the school district’s prior review requirement overbroad and vague. As a result, the court ruled that the review policy should not be enforced and that the seniors’ records of reprimand should be cleared.

Read the appeals court’s ruling.