The Case They've Waited For?
High school journalists challenging a censorship decision await a court
ruling that could end up giving student writers more protection.
By Lisa Watts
Watts is editor of Wooster Magazine at Ohio College of Wooster.
The four high school seniors have sued their school district for violating their First Amendment rights. They've dressed in suits to be sworn in before a federal judge. And a defense lawyer has questioned them in front of their principal. Yet despite two court decisions against them, these editors for the Blade, the student paper at Wooster High School in Ohio, are holding their ground, giving hope to student press advocates who think that just maybe, against all odds, these kids might be changing the ground rules for high school journalism.
Since 1988's Supreme Court ruling in Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier, school officials have had a fair amount of leeway to censor student publications (see "High School Confidential," June 2002). Even in the rare instances when students might have the grounds to fight back, they usually don't--out of fear, a lack of motivation or just disbelief that kids can take on the establishment. So for years student journalism advocates have watched and waited for a decent case with which to challenge Hazelwood. The Wooster case is one of their better chances.
"School newspapers since Hazelwood have probably assumed that they can't fight city hall, that school districts have almost unfettered license to censor them," says Ken Myers, the students' lawyer. The Blade case has "a lot of meaty stuff here that gives a dreamer like me the thought that this might be a case that takes another look at Hazelwood, or at the very least modifies some of the harshness of that ruling."
The students allege that their superintendent illegally impounded the entire press run of the December 20 Wooster Blade, a biweekly paper. He took issue with three lines in a news story about the school board giving preferential treatment to six student-athletes caught at a party with alcohol. The disputed portion involves quotes from a ninth-grade girl saying that she drank at the party and was one of the kids facing action for violating school policy. The girl's mother happens to be the school board president. If the court finds that portion defamatory, the district's impounding of the paper would be legal.
The students' case recently gained legal muscle. In February, though U.S. District Court Judge James Gwin denied their request for a preliminary injunction that would have prohibited prior review by the district for the duration of the case, he opened a door for the students. Gwin found that the Blade is a "limited public forum" for student expression, a designation that gives the paper greater First Amendment protection than most student publications now have. The judge is likely to set a trial date later this year.
"Already, the Blade editors have done a great service for student newspapers across the country," says Mike Hiestand, staff attorney at the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Virginia. By finding the Blade to be a "limited public forum," Gwin is the first judge to clarify the fairly ambiguous rules laid down by Hazelwood about how much say officials can have in a student publication.
For instance, in his decision to deem the Blade a limited public forum, Gwin took into account the following: a district policy, adopted in 1996, that protects student journalists against prior review and censorship except in cases where material is judged obscene, disruptive to the school or defamatory; the fact that the district and the adviser hadn't exercised much editorial control in the past; and that the Blade's 4,500 press run includes 3,000 copies distributed around town. All concrete reasons that other schools seeking the coveted limited public forum designation can now point to.
Meanwhile, the students swear the story is accurate. Reporter Amila Uppal has maintained under oath that the girl's quote is correct. A day before deadline, Senior Editor Tim Yaczo, who cowrote the story with Uppal, presented Superintendent David Estrop a list, "All the President's Men"-style, of the students reporters thought were being disciplined. Estrop told them federal privacy laws prevented him from confirming or denying any names.
The students have learned plenty about political and legal maneuvering in a small town. Just as they've learned some important journalism lessons. If they could do it over again, they might add a qualifying line to the story, such as "the superintendent's office did not confirm this information."
"Ambiguity is never good, in anything you do," pronounces Editorial Page Editor Vasanth Ananth. A tennis player and debate champion, Ananth now quotes First Amendment law and school policy from memory.
The day the papers were confiscated, Ananth stormed home to read "anything I could find on Lexis on First Amendment law." On the advice of the Student Press Law Center, Editor in Chief Darcie Draudt sent a press release about the censorship to local news outlets. The story appeared in papers across the country. Ananth was working at the town's ice rink when a parent skated up, handed him a clipping and said, " 'You might want to read this.' I thought, 'Oh my! It's the Washington Post!' "
Draudt says the editors have juggled court appearances and conference calls with schoolwork, after-school activities and college applications. Poised and soft-spoken, Draudt is senior class president, head majorette, plays flute in the band, belongs to the National Honor Society and competes on the speech team. She hopes to pursue a journalism career. Ananth and Yaczo plan careers in law.
"I've learned the importance of doing what's right, whether it's reporting the story or fighting for the right to publish the paper," Draudt says.
Yet some fear the students could win this battle but lose the larger war over editorial control.
"There's no reason that the board can't change its policy," says David Millstone, the district's lawyer. "They could put more severe limitations on the students--the Supreme Court allows it."
But as Myers, the students' attorney, says, "These kids are committed, they're bright, they keep some perspective. And they're confident."###