Court upholds high school editors' right to reject ads

Decision may help insulate schools from liability for student media

Arlington, Va. -- A ruling by a federal court of appeals upholding the right of high school student editors to determine the advertising content of their publications should persuade some school administrators that press freedom and freedom from liability go hand in hand, according to the Student Press Law Center.

The First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on December 9 that school officials at Lexington High School in Lexington, Mass., did not violate the First Amendment rights of an advertiser when student editors of the high school's student newspaper and yearbook refused to publish his advertisement. The ad, which promoted sexual abstinence, was submitted by Douglas Yeo, a town resident and parent, after the school board had voted to make condoms available to students. The students said they had a policy of not publishing political or advocacy ads. They offered to allow Yeo to submit a congratulatory ad to seniors in the yearbook and a letter to the editor in the newspaper expressing his views, but Yeo refused the offer.

The decision, Yeo v. Town of Lexington, 1997 W.L. 748667 (1st Cir. Dec. 9, 1997)(en banc), was based primarily on the court's finding that student editors -- not school officials -- rejected the ad. While school officials admitted that they had discussed the advertisement with students, the court found that they had left the final decision up to the students themselves.

The court refused to accept Yeo's claim that the students' actions were attributable to the school district.

"[T]he fact that the newspaper editors are public school students does not, in itself, make them state actors."

The court also rejected Yeo's argument that schools have a responsibility to override the decisions of their student editors.

"This is a situation where government actors -- school officials acting under a statute of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts -- have chosen to grant editorial autonomy to these high school students.... 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," the court wrote.

That, says Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, which filed a friend of the court brief in the case, is especially significant and should encourage school officials to give their student media greater editorial freedom.

"This is a win-win situation for schools. They can support student press freedom, which journalism educators have always said is the best way to teach responsible journalism. And as long as they give students that editorial independence, school officials will not be held responsible for the content decisions students make," Goodman said.

"The decision suggests that a 'hands-off' policy -- one in which school officials respect the free press rights of their students -- may actually insulate schools from liability," Goodman said.

Goodman said that the court's ruling is the first such case involving high school students but reflects the reasoning of a number of courts in cases involving college student media.

Yeo has said he may ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision.

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For more information, contact: Mark Goodman, Executive Director, Student Press Law Center. (703) 807-1904.

The Student Press Law Center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, founded in 1974, that provides legal help and information to student journalists and their advisers. The Student Press Law Center was joined in its brief by the National Scholastic Press Association, Journalism Education Association, Scholastic Journalism Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Columbia Scholastic Press Advisers Association, New England Scholastic Press Association and the Yankee Press Education Network. The brief was written by Robert Bertsche, an attorney with Hill & Barlow in Boston, Mass., which provided its services pro bono.