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Court Takes Up School Press Rights : To Rule on Permissibility of Censoring Student Journalists

January 21, 1987|DAVID G. SAVAGE | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to decide whether the Constitution's guarantee of freedom of the press extends to a high school newspaper.

The case pits the right of students to report on subjects of interest to their readers--in this instance, on teen-age pregnancies and divorce by their parents--against the responsibility of school officials to control the curriculum.

In July, an appeals court ruled that the First Amendment covers high school newspapers and declared that students may publish what they wish, as long as the stories would not "materially disrupt" the school atmosphere or lead to a lawsuit against school officials.

Final Authority Claimed

But, in appealing to the high court, officials argued that the school--not the students--publishes the paper and that the principal has the final authority over what is printed.

In a 1969 case involving students wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, the Supreme Court said that young people "do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse door."

Recently, however, the justices have appeared to be backing away from that broad declaration.

Two years ago, for example, in a case involving a New Jersey schoolgirl who had drugs in her purse, the high court said that students do not have the same rights as adults to be free from "unreasonable searches and seizures" without search warrants. Instead, it ruled, school officials need only a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing to search students.

Lewd Speech Barred

And, last July, the justices ruled that a high school student has no right to make a "lewd and offensive" speech in a school assembly.

Despite a host of lower court decisions on school newspapers, the high court has not ruled on the subject.

"We're not too confident they (the justices) appreciate the right to student free speech," said Mark Goodman, director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington. "These were well-written newspaper stories about topics that are of vital interest to high school students," he said.

On the other side, Gwendolyn Gregory, counsel for the National School Boards Assn., said that it "trivializes the First Amendment" to suggest that student reporters have the full right to freedom of the press. "This was not a state censoring a privately owned newspaper. This was a part of the school curriculum," said Gregory, who had urged the court to hear this case.

The case arose in 1983, when the principal of Hazelwood East High School near St. Louis, Mo., deleted two pages of the student newspaper that contained "personal accounts" of students who had become pregnant or whose parents had been divorced.

Reporters File Suit

Three reporters, including Cathy Kuhlmeier, filed suit, alleging that their First Amendment rights had been violated. A District Court dismissed the suit, concluding that the principal had acted correctly to protect the privacy of students and parents named in the stories. The U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling on a 2-1 vote and said that the lower court should consider awarding damages to the students.

The justices will hear arguments in the case (Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier, 86-836) in the fall.

In other actions, the high court:

--Affirmed that a city may not restrict door-to-door solicitation to the hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. An appeals court in Chicago said that such an ordinance, enacted in Watseka, Ill., violated the free speech rights of solicitors for the poor. The justices upheld that judgment (Watseka vs. Illinois Public Action Council, 86-631) on a 6-3 vote, with Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Byron R. White and Sandra Day O'Connor dissenting.

--Let stand a court order prohibiting anti-abortion activists from demonstrating directly in front of a clinic in Spokane, Wash. The demonstrators had appealed on grounds that their right to free speech was denied, but the court there concluded that they were blocking the sidewalk and harassing patients (SHARE vs. Bering, 86-746).

California Ruling Stands

--Let stand a California court ruling that allows an Australian family to sue an Orange County company in the state courts over an allegedly defective heart valve. Lawyers for the company had argued that the case (Shiley Inc. vs. Corrigan, 86-842) should be moved to Australia, where the heart valve was used and where liability laws are less rigid, rather than in California, where the product was made.

--Let stand an appeals court ruling that threw out a $1.25-million lawsuit by the families of three New England lobstermen killed in a 1980 storm at sea. The lawsuit charged the government with being negligent in its weather predictions (Brown vs. U.S., 86-528).

The men died when two fishing boats from Hyannis, Mass., were caught in a storm that the Weather Service had failed to predict. A buoy that would have provided more accurate data was in disrepair at the time and was to be replaced the following January.

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