Student, ACLU sue over withheld article

MICHIGAN ' The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a lawsuit in April on behalf of a Utica High School student journalist who was censored last spring for reporting on residents' claims that school bus diesel fumes were causing health complications.

Katherine Dean, currently a senior and managing editor of the Utica High School Arrow, is claiming in her suit that Utica Community Schools and Superintendent Joan Sergent violated her First Amendment rights when they withheld her article from the Arrow.

The censored article reported on a lawsuit filed by Shelby Township residents who lived next to the school district's bus depot. One of the residents, Ray Frances, asserted in the suit that exhaust fumes from idling school buses contributed to his lung cancer.

Michael Steinberg, legal director for the Michigan ACLU, said, 'I thought it was an outstanding article, high journalistic standards. The reason it was censored was not because of her writing or her lack of research but rather because it had the potential to embarrass the school.'

Administrators at Utica Community Schools have argued that the Arrow is a school-sponsored, curriculum-based publication over which the school can exercise 'a great deal of control.' Arrow staff members say the paper has a long history of freedom from administrative review and censorship.

Andrew Nickelhoff, who will represent Dean at the request of the ACLU, said the fact that this was the first incidence of administrators taking an 'aggressive role in controlling the content of the paper' is significant to the case.

'It certainly calls into question the reasons that were stated by the administration for removing the article,' he said.

Dean said she is 'ecstatic' that the ACLU has filed the case. She said, 'I still feel that if an article is newsworthy and truthful then it needs to be printed.'

reports, Spring 2003