Court Backs Novato Student’s Protected Speech

Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle, February 20, 2008

The U.S. Supreme Court left intact Tuesday a ruling that said Novato school district officials violated a student’s freedom of expression when they confiscated a high school newspaper because of an editorial attacking illegal immigrants.

The ruling, issued last May by a state appeals court in San Francisco, relied on a California law that protects freedom of the press in public schools more strongly than the constitutional rights guaranteed under the First Amendment.

Tuesday’s Supreme Court order, which denied a hearing sought by the Novato Unified School District, means that California students “will be able to publish very controversial political opinions without fearing retribution,” said Paul Beard of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a lawyer for the student who wrote the editorial.

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High school senior Andrew Smith wrote the editorial for the Novato High newspaper, the Buzz, in November 2001 when he was 18. He said immigrants should stay out of the country if they can’t go to the trouble of becoming citizens.

Authorities “should treat these people the way cops would treat a suspected criminal,” Smith wrote. “If a person looks suspicious then just stop them and ask a few questions, and if they answer, ‘Que?’ detain them.”

After some students and parents protested, school district officials pulled remaining copies of the newspaper out of circulation and sent a letter to parents saying the editorial shouldn’t have been published.

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The school district “succumbed to the fear of disruption and discontent” when it removed the newspaper from circulation, the state court said. Smith was awarded $1 and a declaration that his rights had been violated.

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