blog: Laws not enough to keep student publications ‘free’
Student journalists at California’s La Serna High School were not allowed in 2006 to publish the June issue of their school newspaper, The Freelancer, as punishment for a previous issue.
Intended to encourage awareness and discussion among students, the May issue had centered on sex. It included a themed word search, interviews and surveys about student opinions of sex.
This information was meant to educate the student body about sexual concerns as well as elaborate on popular opinions among the school community about sex.
The various forms in which the information was presented were intended to appeal to a wide range of the student body. The school’s principal, Martin Plourde, banned further publication of the paper that year and asked adviser Holly Vance to resign.
Under California law, student journalists enjoy more freedoms than those allowed by the precedent of prior restraint that Supreme Court established in its 1988 landmark Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier decision. In Hazelwood – the first case to address free press rights of student publications – a divided court said publications produced as part of a school curriculum and using school resources could be subject to prior review and prior restraint by school administrators.
California’s Student Free Expression Act states that prior restraint of student publications is expressly prohibited unless the material to be published is obscene, libelous, or slanderous, or incites a disruption of the orderly operation of the school or students to commit illegal acts.
Though The Freelancer staff did not seek legal recourse through the law, they would have had a good case against the school.
Arguably, the publication of a suggestively themed public high school newspaper is controversial and possibly offensive to some readers, but it does not call for punishing the student journalists by squelching their First Amendment rights to a freedom of the press.
In publishing that May issue, The Freelancer intended to raise awareness of sex and its relation to the respective student body. The administration’s reaction was inappropriate and violated its students’ rights to free press and freedom of expression.
While all elements of the issue may not have been absolutely appropriate for a public school student body, prohibiting future editions of the paper only fosters a closed environment where important issues and opportunities to educate never see the light of day.
And that’s not good education any way you look at it.
Dominican University, Communications & Media Studies