Calif. high court lets stand student journalist’s free-speech victory

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The California Supreme Court has upheld a lower court’s decision in favor of a high school student’s free speech.

On Sept. 12 the state Supreme Court unanimously denied review in Smith v. Novato Unified School District, rejecting the school district’s appeal. The case involved the publication of racially charged editorials written by high school student Andrew Smith in 2001 and 2002.

“It’s good to finally have victory after all these years,” said Smith, who is now in the Marines and attends college in California.

“I believe so strongly in the importance of the First Amendment, and I hope this case will open up more freedoms for high school journalists so they will have confidence to spread their opinions and not have their freedom of speech hampered,” he told the First Amendment Center Online. “Hopefully other school districts will see my case and know they can’t deny students these rights.”

Smith was a senior at Novato High School, a public school 30 miles north of San Francisco, when the case began. In November 2001 he wrote an editorial titled “Immigration” in the school newspaper, The Buzz, in which he argued against illegal immigration, calling on government agents to find and detain people who could not speak English.

Smith wrote, “If a person looks suspicious then just stop them and ask a few questions, and if they answer ‘que?’ detain them and see if they are legal.”

The article drew criticism from students and parents, who protested to school administrators. Novato High School Principal Lisa Schwartz, who had approved the editorial’s inclusion in the newspaper, requested that remaining copies be collected from the school. She sent a letter to parents saying the article should not have run because it violated the district’s publication policy.

Smith was threatened and physically injured after his editorial’s publication but continued writing for the newspaper. In early 2002 he submitted another controversial opinion piece on race relations, called “Reverse Racism.” It was approved by the principal, who suggested publishing a counter-viewpoint editorial alongside Smith’s piece.

Delays in the editorial’s printing led Smith and his father to file a lawsuit in Marin County Superior Court on May 2, 2002, seeking an injunction to force publication. The Buzz printed the editorial in its May 14 issue, but Smith continued arguing that the school-led publication delays were unconstitutional and violated his free-speech rights.

In September 2002 the plaintiffs filed an amended complaint, alleging violations of Smith’s right to free speech under the U.S. and California Constitutions and the California Education Code. The suit sought nominal damages of $1.

Marin County Superior Court ruled in favor of the school district in March 2005, citing that Smith’s editorial promoted disruption at the high school. Smith appealed the decision, and the 1st District Court of Appeals in San Francisco overturned the ruling in a 3-0 judgment in May 2007.

“A school may not prohibit student speech simply because it presents controversial ideas and opponents of the speech are likely to cause disruption,” Judge Linda Gemello wrote in the May ruling.

Mike Hiestand, an attorney with the Student Press Law Center, helped the Southern California American Civil Liberties Union write a friend-of-the-court brief on Smith’s behalf.

“We are delighted,” Hiestand said of the high court’s decision to deny review of the appeals court’s ruling. “It’s the right ruling and serves as a reminder to California students and school officials that there’s a reason we have the First Amendment. It protects speech that may be offensive or take people by surprise, and unfortunately the school didn’t embrace that idea at first.”

Attorneys for the Novato School District did not respond to messages for comment in time for this story.

The Buzz newspaper folded in September 2002 when not enough students signed up for the journalism program. Novato High School currently has no student newspaper.

Lydia Hailman King is a University of Mississippi graduate with degrees in journalism, international studies and French.

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