Student speech prevails at Calif. high school — for now

Monday, June 13, 2011

School officials in La Jolla, Calif., have temporarily agreed to not remove messages high school students painted on a set of benches long used for expressive purposes, the La Jolla Light reports.

The agreement — a stipulated preliminary injunction — is part of a lawsuit filed by a La Jolla High School student claiming the school’s regulation of messages on the benches is unconstitutionally viewpoint based. The student is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The concrete benches have a history of featuring student expression that is mostly benign, such as celebrating sports victories and birthdays, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. But earlier this year, political messages supporting democracy in the Middle East appeared. School administrators painted over them, citing a policy that only “positive messages” about students and school activities can be written on the benches. Political messages, the school argues, are properly reserved for a bulletin board.

One of the attorneys representing the student plaintiff hailed the stipulation as a victory for student speech.

“The message is that students have strong free-speech rights and this is about protecting free speech rights under the law,” David Blair-Loy, legal director for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial counties, told the Union-Tribune.

Though the injunction bars the school from removing non-school-related messages and demolishing the benches, it does not permit student speech that is “obscene, libelous or slanderous,” or that would incite unlawful acts on school grounds or disruption of school operations.

The temporary injunction will remain in effect pending the resolution of the suit or other court order.

First Amendment Center intern Jonathan Anderson is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

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