February 8, 2010

Appellate Court Will Hear IHS Newspaper’s First Amendment Case

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Eight former editors of The Ithaca High School Tattler gained a small victory in their fight for First Amendment rights in high school journalism: On Jan. 26., U.S. District Judge Norman Mordue issued a decision allowing an appeal of his earlier ruling that dismissed some of the students’ claims.

The case began in the fall of 2004, when The Tattler published a series that criticized the policies of the school’s new principal, Joe Wilson, who resigned last June.

“He was issuing a variety of polices that were not well received among students and staff both because of the content of the policies and how they were administered,” Andrew Alexander, who was a news editor of The Tattler at the time, said.

Alexander composed a survey of the IHS student body, finding that nearly two-thirds of students were unhappy with Wilson’s policies.

“Later, the newspaper reported an incident in which Wilson entered a classroom and told students that he was the ‘Food Nazi’ and if students continued eating in class, he would send them to the ‘food gas chamber,’” Robert Ochshorn ’09, The Tattler’s editor in chief at the time of the incident, stated in a press release.

According to Alexander, Wilson did not take the criticism well.

“He disliked that we were editorializing against him — in editorials — and [were] not writing nice, happy things that would improve school spirit,” Alexander said.

The Tattler staff tried at length to convince the administration to amend the guidelines, gaining support from the Ithaca community, Alexander said. When no conclusion was reached, eight of The Tattler’s editors took the case to court.

They submitted five causes of action to the court: that the censored material violated their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights; that the order to submit articles to an advisor for approval violated the practices of The Tattler and the First Amendment; that the school’s restrictions on distribution of the underground issues of the paper violated freedom of the press; that the guidelines imposed were unconstitutional; and lastly that the school refrain from implementing these guidelines.

The ICSD submitted a motion to throw out the students’ claims without a trial. Mordue ruled to dismiss the first three causes in March.

Ithaca lawyer Raymond Schlather, who agreed to take on The Tattler’s case pro bono, submitted a request for appeal, arguing that if the first three claims were thrown out and the last claim — regarding the overly broad nature of the guidelines — went to trial, at least three claims would be appealed at this trial’s conclusion. For the sake of judicial economy, Schlather argued that the first three claims be appealed before a ruling is issued on the guidelines. Mordue’s Jan. 26 ruling moved the case to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, staying trial of the fourth and fifth causes until the appeal is decided. Without this appeal, the students’ first three causes would no longer be considered in the case.

Censorship cases involving student speech have legal precedent. Schools are bound by the decision of Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), which imposes relatively few restrictions on student speech, holding that “in the absence of specific showing of constitutionally valid reasons to regulate speech, students are entitled to freedom of expression of their views.” Those that choose to adhere to the ruling in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1988) are allowed to impose “reasonable restrictions” on student speech unless the paper is deemed a public forum, “if school authorities have by policy or by practice opened those facilities ‘for indiscriminate use by the general public.’”

The ICSD’s guidelines employ and expand on the right of prior review granted under Hazelwood, issuing unprecedented restrictions on The Tattler.

“This is a potentially very important case because so few cases involving student media ever go to trial,” Frank LoMonte, executive director of Student Press Law Center, told The Sun last April.

After five years in court, The Tattler’s editors have not lost hope.

“We’ll take it as far as we need to take it, until we can lift these censorious restrictions,” Alexander said.

Similar guidelines currently restrict The Tattler, but according to Alexander, the current editors hold to the opinions of their predecessors.

“They — like we did, and like generations of Tattler editors before us — remain good journalists and journalists who do not print what the people in power tell them without some skepticism,” Alexander said. “A high school paper, like any newspaper, has not just a right but an obligation to be critical of those in power and to search for the truth rather than to simply publish what is asserted to be the truth.”

Original Author: Dani Neuharth-Keusch