Iowa Court Backs Broad Student-Expression Rights

By Mark Walsh — November 11, 2011 2 min read
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A high school newspaper’s parody edition and other objectionable articles did not violate an Iowa student free expression statute, and a reprimand given to the faculty adviser had to be removed, a state appellate court has ruled.

“Publishing articles on controversial topics or expressing a viewpoint counter to that of the school administration are not prohibited by the Student Free Expression Law,” said a three-judge panel of the Iowa Court of Appeals in a Nov. 9 decision in Lange v. Diercks.

The law was passed in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which held that school administrators did not violate the First Amendment rights of students by exercising editorial control over publications as long as any limits were related to educational concerns.

The Iowa law, enacted in 1989, gives student journalists the right to run student publications without prior restraint from administrators provided materials are not obscene or libelous and do not encourage students to commit unlawful acts.

A state trial court ruled for the school administration, but the state appellate panel said it was convinced the law was adopted to give students “more robust free-expression rights than those articulated by the Supreme Court” in Hazelwood.

The court cited data from the Student Press Law Center which says Iowa is one of at least seven states that have passed laws limiting the effects of Hazelwood.

The case involves two issues of the Tribe-une, the student paper of Waukon High School in the Allamakee Community School District. In an April Fool’s parody edition in 2008, there were articles such as “Cheerleaders on ‘Roids,’” “Meth Lab Found in Biology Lab,” and one suggesting a student’s career aspiration was to become a Chippendale dancer.

The school’s principal reprimanded faculty adviser Ben Lange for that issue and articles in another that the principal felt encouraged students to violate school rules. The principal said many people were offended and the two issues case “a dark shadow on our school district.”

In addition to ruling that the student newspaper editions were protected, the appeals court ordered that the reprimands issued to Lange be removed from his file.

“If a school district is entitled to sanction a journalism advisor for student publications that comply with [the state statute], the statutory protections will be eroded and student speech will be chilled,” the court said.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.