February 25, 2008
Principal Bob Marks
8140 Vanalden Avenue
Reseda, CA 91335
Superintendent Jean Brown
6621 Balboa Blvd
Lake Balboa, CA 91406
Dear Principal Bob Marks and Superintendent Jean Brown,
We are deeply concerned about the recent decision to suspend three students from Grover Cleveland High School because they wore homemade t-shirts which read, “My Vagina is Obscene,” to protest the censorship of the school newspaper Le Sabre. We understand that the school paper was confiscated because it featured a detailed diagram of a vagina and accompanying articles about “V-Day”, a national movement to raise awareness about violence toward women. In our view, both in censoring the school paper and suspending sophomore Richard Edmond and two of his peers for wearing these t-shirts, you have violated the students’ basic First Amendment and state free speech rights.
In the landmark case Tinker v. Des Moines, the Supreme Court affirmed that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." Just because they happen to be in school, students do not automatically lose the right to express opinions on issues of political, social, or cultural import, as long as they do not interfere with the educational function of the school or substantially disrupt school activities. This principle has been recognized by many courts, see, e.g. Guiles v. Marineau (2d Cir. 2006), recently reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in Morse v. Frederick (2007).
It is further protected by California Education Code 48907 which explicitly protects student press unless it can be proven obscene, libelous, defamatory, or substantially disruptive, and 48950, which prevents schools from disciplining conduct that would be protected off-campus by the First Amendment or the California Constitution, such as wearing t-shirts as part of a political protest.
The federal courts have interpreted the First Amendment to permit school officials to exercise control over non-forum, school-sponsored student press, but only if their exercise of authority is “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical purposes,” which is not the case here. Even if it were, however, California law specifically gives students editorial control over school publications, without resort to First Amendment arguments. “California courts have held that section 48907 provides broader protection for student speech in California public school newspapers” than the First Amendment does, Smith v. Novato Unified, 150 Cal. App. 4th 1439, 1452 (2007).
The paper contained anatomically correct illustrations, such as might be found in the high school biology or sex education texts, along with information and opinion about a political and social issue. It is implausible that either the paper itself, or the students’ t-shirts, could be considered obscene or disruptive. At most, they might have sparked healthy debate and discussion, the hallmark of democracy.
In choosing censorship, not only have you put the school in a tenuous legal position, but worse, you have discouraged students from discussing important social issues like violence toward women, taught them that the female anatomy is shameful and embarrassing, and modeled that the best way to deal with difficult speech is to silence it. This is precisely the opposite of what the First Amendment stands for.
As one federal judge expressed it, "The schoolroom prepares children for citizenship, and the proper exercise of the First Amendment is a hallmark of citizenship in our country." (Chandler v. McMinnville School Dist., 978 F.2d 524 (9th Cir. 1992)). Education in a democratic society requires that schools develop citizens who can adapt to changing times, understand important social issues, and effectively express their opinions. Public schools must not only provide students with knowledge of many subject areas and training in essential skills but also educate students about core American values such as fairness, equality, justice, respect for others, and the right to dissent.
We strongly urge you to repeal the suspension decisions and remove all references to them from the students’ records, allow distribution of the paper so the school community can judge the content for itself, and use this as an opportunity to teach your students about one of our country’s most fundamental principles: the right to free speech.
If we can be of assistance in this matter, please do not hesitate to call us at (212) 807-6222.
Joan Bertin Frank LaMonte
Executive Director Executive Director
National Coalition Against Censorship Student Press Law Center