SPLC Defends Iowa’s Student Free Expression Law in State Supreme Court Brief

The Student Press Law Center (“SPLC”) filed a friend-of-the-court brief today urging the Iowa Supreme Court to reverse a lower court’s ruling that upheld disciplinary sanctions against a high school journalism teacher based on his students’ humor in an April Fool’s parody newspaper – a ruling that endangers Iowa’s Student Free Expression Law.

In the case, officials of an Iowa school district contend – and a state trial-court judge accepted – that a school can suppress or punish such mild editorial content as a photograph of a student wearing a headband or a hooded sweatshirt, apparel that violates school dress codes.

“This is a brief filed on April 1 that is largely about the April Fool’s parody edition of a student newspaper, but unfortunately, the District Court’s ruling is no laughing matter,” said attorney Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the SPLC, who authored the brief with SPLC attorneys Laura Napoli and Adam Goldstein. “The ruling in this case lowers the bar for censorship so drastically that it could become a punishable offense even to mention words like ‘steroids’ in a student publication.”

Waukon High School adviser Ben Lange was reprimanded over two issues of his students’ newspaper, The Tribune, including the April 2, 2008, humor edition that contained photos of a student wearing a headband and another wearing a hooded sweatshirt to accompany parody stories. Lange’s principal, Dan Diercks, took issue with multiple stories and images in that paper, as well as a photo illustration of a child holding a cigarette that accompanied an anti-tobacco story published on Sept. 30, 2008.

Lange initiated the case in Allamakee County District Court to overturn the discipline and clear his record, contending that he was being unlawfully punished for speech that he was forbidden from stopping under the Iowa Student Free Expression Law. Diercks and his employer, the Allamakee Community School District, contend that the newspapers were not legally protected speech, because the photos and the newspaper’s joking mentions of such matters as steroid use and drugs equated to “encouraging” unlawful behavior. The administrators even contended – and the District Court agreed – that the mock name of the parody edition (“The Bribe-Une”) was unprotected speech, because, in their opinion, use of the word “bribe” encouraged students to commit bribery.

In 1989, Iowa responded to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which reduced the First Amendment rights afforded to student journalists, by enacting the Iowa Student Free Expression Law. The law, Iowa Code 280.22, restores the pre-Hazelwood level of protection for students in public schools, by providing that schools may restrain speech only if it is obscene or otherwise illegal, or if it threatens to provoke a substantial disruption, or the violation of law or school regulations. Lange’s case is the first time the Student Free Expression Law has been tested in the Iowa Supreme Court.

In a Jan. 13, 2011 ruling, District Court Judge David F. Staudt sided with the school district and dismissed Lange’s case. Judge Staudt ruled that the Iowa Student Free Expression Law merely reaffirmed – not reversed – the impact of Hazelwood, and did not give students any more rights than the minimal level of protection recognized in that 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case.

“Iowa has one of the oldest and best laws reversing the damage done by Hazelwood and restoring a sensible balance between authority and freedom,” LoMonte said. “The District Court’s decision upsets that carefully crafted balance and rolls back the civil rights of young people in a way that, if not reversed, will enable schools to punish discussion of anything even mildly controversial.”

Among the arguments made by the school district, and accepted by the lower court, is that the content of the April Fool’s Day issue was not protected by the Student Free Expression Law because some students were overheard talking about one of the articles and “were not concentrating on learning.”

“[I]t is the school’s contention – a contention fully and uncritically accepted by the District Court – that students’ journalistic work may be suppressed or punished merely because it will cause readers to talk about it. If that is to be the standard – if speech is unprotected because it provokes discussion – then the First Amendment will have been read out of existence in Iowa’s schools,” the SPLC wrote in its brief.

The case is Lange v. Diercks, Iowa Supreme Court No. 11-191.

Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been devoted to educating high school and college journalists about the rights and responsibilities embodied in the First Amendment, and supporting the student news media in covering important issues free from censorship. The Center provides free information and educational materials for student journalists and their teachers on a wide variety of legal topics.

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