Judge prohibits school district from punishing student for contributing to underground paper

Court says school district may bar 4 other students involved in publication from going to graduation

CALIFORNIA -- Five students filed lawsuits against the Los Angeles Unified School District in June challenging the punishments they received for their involvement with an underground newspaper.

In total, 11 Palisades High School students were suspended and four others transferred for their involvement with the Occasional Blow Job, a controversial underground newspaper that insulted teachers, students and administrators and used profane language.

As a result of the suspensions, approximately 300 students staged a walk-out to show support for the newspaper and the students involved.

According to court documents, school administrators said the students involved with the newspaper and walk-out were punished for contributing "to unauthorized material which caused disruption on the high school campus."

For Jeremey Meyer, that contribution was an e-mail he never intended to be published.

Meyer, a senior at Palisades and one of the four students who was forced to transfer to another district high school, filed a lawsuit asking the court to allow him to return to Palisades.

U.S. District Judge Lourdes Baird granted Meyer's request, ruling in early June that Meyer could not be suspended or transferred for his alleged involvement with the underground publication. Meyer v. Los Angeles Unified School District, No. CV-00-4360 LGB (AIJx) (D. Cal June 5, 2000) (order granting motion for preliminary injunction).

Baird said that because Meyer's e-mail was not obscene and because he did not take part in or encourage any school disruption, the discipline imposed by the school district was "improper" under California law.

"No purpose would be served by removing him from the environment in which he has spent the last four years of his life," Baird said in her decision.

Baird did find a purpose in not allowing four other seniors from graduating with their class, though.

Although she had ruled in Meyer's case that vulgar words such as "Fuck" were protected speech a month earlier, Baird found the school district was within its rights to bar the four students from graduation ceremonies., suggesting that what these students did was substantially disruptive.

Carol Sobel, the attorney for Meyer and the four students, said the court ruled the way it did because Meyer did not actively participate in the O.B.J., unlike his four counterparts.

Sobel said the district relied on the standard established by the Supreme Court in 1986 in Bethel School District v. Fraser. In that case, the Court ruled that schools could censor vulgar speech even if it did not meet the constitutional standard of obscene language.

Sobel had argued that the newspaper dealt with issues of concern to the student body at Palisades High School. Therefore, it was legitimate free speech, even though it contained admittedly profane language.

Although the four students could not attend graduation ceremonies, they did receive their diplomas.

Fall 2000, reports