Iowa leaves Minnesota in the dust with protections afforded to student newspapers

November 10, 2011

Neighboring Iowa and its appellate courts have led the way on issuing courageous, well-reasoned decisions that protect important rights.  First came gay marriage.  Now it’s students’ free expression.

On Wednesday, the Iowa Court of Appeals issued a decision that unambiguously protects the rights of high school students to learn journalism by doing, and also affirms the right of faculty advisers to let that learning happen.

At issue was the Iowa Student Free Expression Law, which the Iowa Legislature passed in 1989 in response to the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Hazelwood v. KuhlmeierHazelwood generally gave school administrators broad discretion to censor student newspapers, despite the Frist Amendment.  In response, Iowa and eight other states (not Minnesota) passed laws protecting students’ rights “to exercise freedom of speech, including the right of expression in official school publications.”  Exceptions arise when expression is obscene, libelous, encourages law- or rule-breaking, or encourages “substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school.”

The law also expressly forbids “prior restraint of material prepared for official school publications,” specificies that student editors have the final say, and limits advisers’ roles to supervising “production” and maintaining “professional standards of English and journalism.”

The case that led to Wednesday’s decision arose in Waukon, Iowa, where the newspaper’s faculty adviser was reprimanded for an April Fools’ parody editon of the paper as well as a non-parody story about students who chew tobacco, which the school’s adminsitration contended had caused “material disruption” of the school.  The 25-page court decision recites some of the complained-of conduct, including the students’ “derogatory twist” of a rival school’s mascot name “Kee Hawks” into “Keysucks.” 

The appeals court explained that there was no evidence that the newspaper content had encouraged breaking the law or rules.  For example, with respect to the Keysucks name, the school district’s attorney “was unable to explain” how the twist had caused any disruption.  Rather, the school administration’s concerns were entirely speculative.  The court also held the content was not libelous and did not violate the “professional standards of journalism.”  The judges also took the remarkable step of ordering the school district to remove the advier’s reprimands from his employment file, explaining:

The purpose of section 280.22 is to allow students broader free expression. If a school district is entitled to sanction a journalism advisor for student publications that comply with section 280.22, the statutory protections will be eroded and student speech will be chilled. Removing the reprimands from Lange‟s personnel file is necessary to protect the free speech rights of Iowa students as contemplated by Iowa Code section 280.22.

On a day when when Facebook is alive with chatter about how poorly Penn State students have behaved after a football coach’s firing, it is somewhat incongruous to trumpet a win for the rights of students.  But in the end, students need to be trusted to do the right thing, and to learn by doing, and to recognize parody on the Daily Show, in The Onion, or in their school newspaper.

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