A Post-Hazelwood Lawsuit over High School Censorship

Mark Fitzgerald, Editor and Publisher, Mar. 9

CHICAGO—After the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, most high school student journalists have had no alternative but to go along with whatever the administration wants to do with the school paper. If the principal says an article about teenage pregnancy or gang crimes is out, it’s out—and there’s nothing left to discuss.

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But in Marin County, California, one high school journalist didn’t simply accept the principal’s dictate when an editorial column he wrote stirred a firestorm of protest. Instead, he sued.

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Andrew Smith’s article, written when he was a senior in November 2001, was none of those things, and, according to his lawsuit, the principal agreed to its publication in the next issue of The Buzz.

While Smith’s article wasn’t obscene, etc., it was a poorly reasoned rant about illegal immigration, the kind of typical high school journalism that usually leaves its authors deeply embarrassed later in life. Immigration authorities, he wrote, should treat the undocumented as police treat drug dealers. Better immigration enforcement was easy, he added: “It can’t be hard to find and detain the people who can’t speak English. If a person looks suspicious than just stop them and ask a few questions, and if they answer ‘que?,’ detain them and see if they are legal.”

The article upset some parents, and the principal, Lisa Schwartz, suddenly abandoned all that policy about students having the right to free expression, Smith’s lawsuit alleges. She ordered all undistributed copies of The Buzz confiscated. A letter of apology was sent out to parents. A public meeting was held, the lawsuit charges, where Smith was reprimanded, and the article denounced.

“The school district caved to mob rule, basically,” Smith’s lawyer, Sharon Browne, said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “Instead of protecting Mr. Smith’s right to publish this editorial, the school responded to the mob, to the heckler’s veto, and basically said, we’re going to cave to the mob and hang him out to dry, basically.”

Browne is with the Pacific Legal Foundation, a non-profit group that takes up conservative causes, such as preservation of property rights.

The group became involved when the principal refused to run another op-ed by Smith, entitled “Reverse Racism.” The piece opens by recounting how he was assaulted by several black youths, who he said were not sufficiently punished for the crime. Smith at one point takes issue with the term African American. “I bet minorities must love confusing the hell out of us white people by giving themselves politically correct names,” he wrote.

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