Calif. high school settles censorship lawsuit

CALIFORNIA -- Fallbrook Union High School District in Fallbrook, Calif. -- which censored the student newspaper, The Tomahawk, and then canceled its journalism program and removed the journalism adviser who fought the censorship -- has agreed to settle a lawsuit alleging violation of the student journalists' free-speech rights.

The lawsuit was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of San Diego and Imperial Counties and Student Press Law Center volunteer attorney Jean-Paul Jassy of Bostwick and Jassy LLP in Los Angeles, Calif.

Two items provoked the censorship: first, a news story about a dispute over whether the district's superintendent had refused to allow the school to be used as a shelter during October 2007 wildfires, and second, an editorial critical of a school assembly promoting abstinence-only sex education. When journalism adviser David Evans brought the censorship to the District's attention, the school's then-principal, Rod King, cancelled the journalism class and removed Evans as adviser.

According to the ACLU, the proposed settlement requires the District to pay Evans $7,500 and to reimburse the ACLU and Bostwick and Jassy LLP $20,000.

As a result of the lawsuit, new guidelines were implemented to protect student rights, the District made a commitment to keep the student paper running, and the former students most directly involved with the censored stories -- Daniela Rogulj, Chantal Ariosta and Margaret Dupes -- will receive a letter signed by the superintendent and principal acknowledging that they broke no school rules.

In March 2009, shortly after the lawsuit was filed, the school agreed to allow the previously censored content to run in the Tomahawk.

"This case is a victory for freedom of the student press," said David Blair-Loy, legal director for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. "We owe an enormous debt to Dave Evans and the student plaintiffs for standing up for free speech. The result of this case sends a clear message to school districts and administrators all over California -- you violate student speech rights at your peril."

The resolution at Fallbrook High School is significant for the student press across California, Jassy said.

"Dave Evans and the students of Fallbrook High School are First Amendment heroes," he said. "They fought back against unlawful censorship and helped to secure an important resolution for a free student press in California."

Student staff members indicated satisfaction with the settlement.

"Although it is unfortunate that this was not resolved immediately, I feel that our prolonged pursuit of justice was most definitely worthwhile," said Rogulj, who was editor of the Tomahawk during the controversy. "I believe that our efforts have set an example for students across the country to speak their minds and stand up for their rights."

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