Wednesday, May 25, 2005

censorship

a group of students has sued their principal for refusing to let them run an article on homosexuality. the students interviewed a number of openly homosexual students and their parents for the article. without reading the articule, i can't comment on its content, but i can tell you a little bit about student newspapers, having edited one in the early 1990s.

breaking with journalistic custom, the students got approval for the story to run as-is from each interviewed student, and got signed releases from each. for students who are minors, they also got signed releases from their parents or guardians.

represented by the american civil liberties union of southern california, and joined by the gay-straight alliance network the students have filed suit in california's kern count superior court (the equivalent to a state district court in texas, or a district court in the federal system) asking that the court order the school to permit the publication of the stories by tomorrow, the last day of school, when the paper originally intended to publish the articles.

the paper's journalistic reputation is fantastic. having won a number of awards, these student journalists have covered sexuality in the past without interference from the administration, as recently as in december.

california's state education code places high burdens on school administrations who attempt to censor student publications, which is unusual. it commands that students have the same free-expression rights on campus as they do off-campus (which is at odds with, and therefore supercedes in this context, supreme court cases on the issue). it prohibits officials from discriminating against students on the basis of sexual orientation.

if you want to read more background, go to the aclu's website and read the entire complaint. it's 17 pages long, a couple of pages of which is devoted to administrativa. it's a pretty interesting read.

the coverning supreme court case for school censorship of student publications is HAZELWOOD SCHOOL DISTRICT v. KUHLMEIER, 484 U.S. 260 (1988). in it, the court, by 5-3, held that schools and school officials, may hold student speech to a higher standard than would ordinarily be applied to adult speakers in a non-school setting. however, in the kern county case, california law places a higher burden on school administrators, and it remains to be seen (although it is doubtful) that they met that higher burden.

it's interesting to note that when the principal at the kern school originally ordered that the articles be censored, he said that the articles could run if the gay and lesbian students' names were deleted, but he did not similarly order the names of opposing students and community members deleted (despite explicit permission from students and parents that they could be identified as homosexuals in the paper).

the roots of the hazelwood decision go back to a 1969 case called TINKER v. DES MOINES SCHOOL DIST., 393 U.S. 503 (1969). in that case, students sued the district over a policy forbidding the wearing of black armbands in protest of the vietnam war. in a decision written by justice abe fortas, the court held that first amendment rights are available to teachers and students, and that "a prohibition against expression of opinion, without any evidence that the rule is necessary to avoid substantial interference with school discipline or the rights of others, is not permissible under the First and Fourteenth Amendments."

given that the kern county administration permitted running stories about date rape, teen virginity, and heterosexuality, all without consequence in terms of social disruption at the school, it's a stretch to think that there would be something akin to a riot at the school on publication of this paper, especially since the students mentioned in it are already "out."

one wonders if these administrators think. the answer is: probably not.

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