Smith v. Novato Unified School System



In the 2001-02 school year Andrew Smith published two articles in the Novato High School newspaper that offended some members of the community. One was about illegal immigration and the other was about affirmative action. After students staged a walkout to protest the first article, the principal issued a statement apologizing for it and stating that it should not have been published. A day later, the school held a conference for parents where they said the same thing. At the same time, Smith was receiving threats of violence in addition to being stalked. A few days later, he was attacked and received a broken tooth. In light of the adverse reaction to the first article, the principal held the second article until a "counterpoint" could be written; ultimately, when nobody wrote a counterpoint, the article ran late.

Smith sued the school for violating California's student free expression law, arguing that by stating that the illegal immigration commentary should not have been published, the school was taking action designed to punish his speech. Additionally, Smith sued for the censorship involved in the delay of the affirmative action commentary. The Marion County Superior Court ruled in favor of the school district using the fighting words concept which gives officials the ability to censor speech that might cause immediate breach of the peace. The case was then appealed to the California Court of Appeal, First District, where the SPLC filed a brief with the ACLU.

The right to espouse unpopular viewpoints comes with protection against government retaliation; the protection against retaliation is not limited in its scope or efficacy. It would not matter if Smith's school retaliated by censoring him, delaying his next submissions, sending letters home, or playing loud music outside his classroom--all of these actions, when motivated by a dislike of the material he wrote, would be violations of California's student free expression law.

The appellate court agreed, and ruled in favor of Smith, reversing the trial court.

Read the decision.