Court decides students have ad control
School not liable for editorial decisions made by newspaper or yearbook staff
MASSACHUSETTS — Journalists at Lexington High School and student press advocates across the country are celebrating a victory they have been working toward for nearly five years.
A six-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit unanimously ruled in December that student journalists have the right to refuse ads submitted to their publications.
“As a matter of law, we see no legal duty here on the part of school administrators to control the content of the editorial judgments of student editors of publications,” stated the court’s opinion.
The case arose when student yearbook and newspaper editors at Lexington High School refused to print an ad submitted by Douglas Yeo in 1992 encouraging sexual abstinence by students.
Yeo and other parents had been in a battle with the school over its decision to allow condom distribution. The students had an unwritten policy of not accepting political or advocacy ads, but did offer to allow Yeo to present his message in a letter to the editor. Yeo rejected that invitation.
Students and school officials maintained from the start that the school’s policy and practice had been to allow students to control the content of their publications.
Yeo filed suit in federal district court claiming that school officials were ultimately responsible for the students’ actions and were denying his First Amendment right to free speech and his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process.
The district court found that since the students, not school officials, made content decisions regarding ads, the refusal of Yeo’s ad was legal.
The First Amendment limits censorship by the government, but courts generally have said that although public schools and school officials are considered government, actions of student editors at public schools are not.
The First Circuit Court reversed the district court’s decision in June and ruled that student publications, by bearing the “imprimatur of Lexington High School,” are “state actors” despite a state law which reads, “no expression made by students in the exercise of such rights shall be deemed to be an expression of school policy.”
After this reversal, the National School Board Association and national journalism education groups banded together in protest saying that the consequences of the ruling would be to turn student publications into bulletin boards.
The court quickly withdrew its decision and agreed to rehear the case by a larger six-judge panel.
Arguments for this rehearing were made in September.
In the new decision in Yeo v. Lexington, 1997 W.L. 74866 (1st Cir., Dec. 9, 1997), the court ruled that students should not be considered “state actors” because decisions made by student editors are not attributable to the school.
The court noted that school officials’ decision not to censor the students was based in part on the Massachusetts student free expression law.
“This decision is great for student free press rights throughout the country and affirms the courage of [Lexington] school administrators in allowing students to make responsible editorial decisions on their own,” said John Walsh, one of the attorneys for Lexington. “We’re elated with the results.”
Lexington High School’s yearbook adviser, Karen Mechem, described the school community’s reaction to the decision as “pretty happy.”
“We were glad to see that student press rights are still intact. It’s been a long four-and-a-half years.”
reports, Winter 1997-98