Supreme Court Declines to Hear School District Appeal Over Student’s ‘Immigration’ Essay

By Mark Walsh — February 19, 2008 2 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to hear the appeal of a California school district in a controversy over a high school student’s provocative newspaper editorial on immigration.

The essay by Andrew D. Smith, who was a senior at Novato High School in 2001-02, was in the school’s newspaper, The Buzz. The essay, which appeared Nov. 13, 2001, was titled “Immigration” and included several provocative assertions about Hispanics and immigrants, including:

-- “I’ll even bet that if I took a stroll through the Canal district in San Rafael that I would find a lot of people that would answer a question of mine with ‘que?’, meaning that the don’t speak English and don’t know what the heck I’m talking about.”

-- “If they can’t legally work, they have to make money illegal way [sic]. This might include drug dealing, robbery, or even welfare. Others prefer to work with manual labor while being paid under the table tax free.”

Some Latino parents in the community complained to school administrators, according to court papers. The principal of Novato High and the superintendent of the Novato Unified School District sent a letter to parents, stating that the article represented the beliefs of one student, expressing “our deepest regrets for the hurt and anger” the article caused, and stating that it should not have been printed in The Buzz because it violated school board policies on maintaining a respectful learning environment.

Smith and his parents sued school officials and the district in state courts, alleging that the district’s speech policies infringed his free speech rights under the federal and state constitutions.

A state trial court ruled that the “Immigration” editorial was not protected speech because it contained “insulting derogatory and disrespectful speech directed at various ethnic groups.”

But a three-judge panel of the California Court of Appeal reversed and ruled unanimously that the district’s response to the editorial infringed on Smith’s free-speech rights and violated a California state law that provides high school students greater free speech and press rights than they have under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“Althougth ‘Immigration’ communicates Smith’s viewpoint in a disrespectful and unsophisticated manner, it contains no direct provocation or racial epithets,” the state appellate court said in its opinion last year. “We cannot allow the reactions to ‘Immigration’ by the reading audience (that is, the ‘heckler’s veto’) to silence Smith’s communication of unpopular views. ‘Immigration’ is protected speech.”

The California Supreme Court declined to review the case, leading to the Novato district’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The district said the courts must strike a balance between students’ free expression rights and the 14th Amendment property rights of other students “to a safe, productive, and positive school environment.”

Without comment, the justices declined to hear the appeal in Novato Unified School District v. Smith (Case No. 07-783).

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