Good news in California for free speech

I shouldn’t be surprised that a student in the town of Novato, in Marin, was punished after writing an article for his school newspaper critical of illegal immigration:

[Andrew] Smith, who graduated in 2002, wrote stories titled “Immigration” and “Reverse Racism” for The Buzz newspaper while he was a senior. “Immigration” made brief references to the terrorists’ illegal residency in the United States, but focused mainly on Hispanics, the only referenced ethnic group. In it, Smith called for officials to sweep places such as the Canal Area of San Rafael and detain those who respond to questions in Spanish and to check their residency status.

“I am sick of these people insulting us and our ancestors by waltzing in and abusing our country,” Smith wrote in “Immigration.” “There should be no reason for this and America shouldn’t be taking this bending over.”

“Immigration” ran in the November 2001 edition of The Buzz, just weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks. The publication of the opinion piece led to a student walkout, two school forums and Smith being verbally or physically battered by Hispanic students at least three times.

“I am not a racist,” Smith said at the time. “I’m a journalism student. I wanted to get a reaction out of people and I’ve done that.”

Smith’s lawsuit contended that district officials denied his freedom of speech rights by apologizing to students and parents for the first story and allegedly confiscating remaining copies of the newspaper. He claimed that his rights were violated by actions he said district officials took in delaying publication of the second story by requiring an unprecedented accompanying counterpoint article.

At the time, district policy regarding student publications stated: “Students’ rights of expression shall be limited only as allowed by law in order to maintain an orderly school environment and to protect the rights, health and safety of all members of the school community.”

As you can see from the above quotation, Smith sued the school district. He lost at trial, though, and was hit by a “2005 ruling by Marin Superior Court Judge John Sutro that favored school officials and ordered that Smith and his father pay more than $20,981 in litigation costs to the school district.” (As an aside, I’ve always considered Judge Sutro one of the better Marin County judges. This was either a bad day for Judge Sutro, or I’ve been respecting the wrong man, or this is, sadly, the best Marin County has to offer.)

What’s surprising is that, after losing at trial, Smith won on appeal and, even better, the California Supreme Court refused to hear a petition for certification. This means that the appellate ruling is the last and best word on California free speech law as it affects education:

A former Novato High School student won a long battle for his right to free speech when the California Supreme Court declined to review an appellate court ruling Wednesday.

By letting the ruling stand, the high court declared that Andrew Smith’s free-speech rights were denied when school officials condemned an opinion article he wrote in the student newspaper in 2001 that opposed illegal immigration.

The lower court held that state law prohibits a school from chilling a student’s speech because it is “politically incorrect,” as Smith claimed in a 2002 civil lawsuit.

“By allowing Andrew Smith’s victory to stand, the state Supreme Court has delivered a powerful blow against ‘politically incorrect’ censorship in California public schools,” said Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Paul Beard II, who represented Smith. “There is no question now that thought codes cannot be imposed on student journalists in this state.”

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