R.O v. Ithaca

The student newspaper at Ithaca High School, The Tattler, wrote an editorial questioning whether their sex education classes needed to go into such explicit detail. To accompany this editorial, they drew a cartoon of stick figures entangled in various positions drawn on a chalkboard in a classroom. Although The Tattler had always operated as a forum for student expression, the school censored the cartoon, arguing that it was “obscene.” In March 2009, the students and parents of the newspaper filed suit saying that their First Amendment rights were violated. A federal district court in New York found in favor of the school district using the Frasier and Morse standards of censorship and obscenity. The case went to U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit where the SPLC filed its amicus brief.

In 2010, the SPLC (represented by ARN attorneys Joseph P. Esposito, Thomas C. Goodhue, Ian Conner, and Dennis Gucciardo of Hunton & Williams) filed an amicus brief in support of the student editors. If explicit sexual information is being given to students in the context of a health class, how are students supposed to criticize that practice without referencing the content? Frasier and Morse were regulations applicable to speech in physical spaces, not publications.

In 2011, the Second Circuit ruled in favor of the school. Calling the cartoon “unquestionably lewd,” the court didn’t resolve what it thought the forum status of The Tattler actually was or what the implications of caselaw to that forum status should be.