Federal courts affirm student editors' power to triumph over bullying advertisers





High school and college journalists in two states scored victories this spring when state courts upheld their right to control the advertising that goes into their publications.

In both states, Massachusetts and New York, advertisers sued student publications in an attempt to force them to accept their advertisements. In both cases, the advertisers unsuccessfully argued that the publications were state agencies and the student’s refusal to run their ads amounted to state censorship of speech.

In Massachusetts, a U.S. district judge dismissed Yeo v. Lexington, No.94-10811-RGS (D. Mass., Apr. 22, 1996), a Lexington community group’s case against a high school newspaper and yearbook after both publications declined their ad advocating sexual abstinence.

This is the third time judges have ruled against the group, the Lexington Parents Information Network or LEXNET, since they first filed suit in 1994.

Douglas Yeo filed suit on behalf of LEXNET. Defendants named in the suit include the school superintendent, the principal, the advisers of the yearbook and newspaper and the Lexington school committee.

The ad in question read, “We know you can do it! ABSTINENCE: The Healthy Choice,” and offered an address where students could information about “abstinence, safer sex and condoms.”

Students on the yearbook and the newspaper staff decided not to run the ad, saying they felt it was inappropriate. In the Fall 1994 Report, Dow Chi, co-editor of the yearbook, said the ad, “just didn’t fit the nature of the yearbook. It contained a political message.” Traditionally, the yearbook has rejected anything political. Though the students involved in the case have maintained that the decision not to run the ad was theirs and theirs alone, LEXNET seems unconvinced. They have claimed that school officials forced the students to reject the ad.

“We truly believe that [the students] caved under pressure from school officials,” said Anne-Marie Amiel, appellate counsel for the Rutherford Institute, an organization that is assisting Yeo in his case.

Amiel said the school official’s refusal of the ad via the students amounts to state censorship of speech. She said that the school administrators are allowing only one point of view to be expressed by controlling what things go into the newspaper and yearbook.

However, Jason Berger, an attorney for the defendants, says that there is “no factual support” for the Institute’s allegation. He said school administrators explained to the students what could happen if they decided to refuse the ad and, “the students still did what they wanted to do.”

Yeo plans to appeal the district judge’s ruling and arguments will likely be heard in November, Berger said.

In a similar case at the college level in New York, Leeds v. Meltz, 85 F.3d 51 (2d Cir. 1996), a federal court of appeals dismissed a case filed by Jackson Leeds, a City University of New York at Queens College (CUNY) law school graduate who attempted to place an ad in the law school newspaper.

The student editors of The Brief declined Leeds’ ad because they said it had the potential to expose them and the paper to a lawsuit for defamation. The ad asked for information that would “discredit” certain faculty members and the administration for use in a federal civil rights case against the school.

Leeds argued that the school did not want the ad to run and that administrators threatened to withhold funding and computer equipment from the paper if they printed it. He then filed suit against the editors of The Brief in federal court, claiming their refusal to run his ad violated his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Judges at both the trial court and appellate court levels dismissed Leeds’ case, saying he has not produced enough evidence to support his contention that the school had anything to do with the paper’s decision not to run his ad.

Jonathan Meltz, a defendant named in the suit and one of the former editors of The Brief, said he hopes what he and the other editors went through can help other newspapers in the same situation.


Fall 1996, reports