SPLC, Journalism Groups Urge Appeals Court to Overturn High School Censorship Case

WASHINGTON —The Student Press Law Center (SPLC) and two national journalism organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging a federal appeals court to overturn a ruling that upheld the censorship of a cartoon that was critical of a New York high school’s teaching methods for sex education.

The SPLC, joined by the Journalism Education Association and National Scholastic Press Association, filed the amicus brief in the Second U.S. Court of Appeals supporting the former Ithaca High School students’ First Amendment right to publish the cartoon. The case, R.O., et al., v. Ithaca City School District, has been ongoing since 2005.

The cartoon parodied a health class that is mandatory for all students. The cartoon, a satirical commentary about the school’s sex education curriculum, shows a woman standing at a chalkboard and barely discernible stick figures in various sexual positions. The cartoon would have accompanied an article that was published which examined the school’s sex education teaching methods, including the use of comical skits that promoted abstinence.

The school administration censored the cartoon in two publications – the official campus newspaper, The Tattler, and a student-funded independent newspaper, The March Issue.

“If the court tells the students of Ithaca High School that they had no legally protected right to satirize the ineffectiveness of a school policy—the effectiveness of which the school itself is telling this court is a matter of life and death—then the ‘chill’ of intimidation that student journalists already feel when they bravely take up a critical pen against their elders will turn into a deep freeze,” the brief states.

The brief was prepared and filed on behalf of the SPLC, JEA and NSPA by Joseph P. Esposito, Thomas C. Goodhue, Ian Conner and Dennis Gucciardo of Hunton & Williams in Washington, D.C., one of the nation’s leading media-law and litigation firms with 18 offices throughout the United States, Europe and Asia.

“It sends a strong message that the SPLC, the JEA and the NSPA came together to sound the alarm that this case goes far beyond the issue of one political cartoon. The district court’s approach dangerously expands the ability of school administrators to censor speech critical of their policies, even if the speech is created on students’ off-hours and not subsidized by the school at all,” said attorney Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the SPLC.

LoMonte said the district court erroneously relied on two Supreme Court precedents that do not apply to The Tattler or The March Issue. The first case, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988), applies only to school-funded curricular publications, while both The Tattler and The March Issue were extracurricular. The second case, Morse v. Frederick (2007), applies only to speech encouraging illegal drug use, not to criticism of school policies. “The effect of the district court’s ruling is to say that schools can suppress any speech by labeling it ‘harmful.’ That’s not the law, and the Second Circuit needs to say so unequivocally,” LoMonte said.

SPLC June 15, 2010 press release


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