March 27, 2006

Jenner & Block convinced a far northwest suburban school district on Monday to lift its censorship of a high school newspaper and to apologize publicly to the student newspaper's staff.

Partner Gabriel A. Fuentes told the board of Consolidated School District 158 during a morning hearing in Algonquin, Illinois that its quarantining of 1,500 copies of The Voice, the school-sponsored student newspaper at Huntley High School, was "not related to any legitimate educational purpose" and therefore violated the students’ constitutional right to free speech as established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier.

The dispute centered on an editorial which took a school board member to task for his alleged campaign activities in a neighboring school district, where local voters had recently approved two school tax increase referenda.  Among other things, the editorial had urged the board member to focus on local matters, not those in neighboring districts.

After the board member questioned the students' right to publish the editorial, school officials delayed publication of the March 24 issue of The Voice until at least today's special board meeting.  But the district's spring break began on March 24, and students will not return until April 3.  The delay in publishing the newspaper was unacceptable and amounted to unlawful censorship, Mr. Fuentes told the board.

The board voted unanimously to allow publication of the newspaper and to apologize to the newspaper's student staff, after many of the approximately 100 persons at the board meeting spoke against the district's censorship of the newspaper.  The newspaper's staff now plans to distribute on April 3, 10 days after the edition's issue date.  Board member Kim Skaja said the district's apology extended to the public as well.

After the board's vote, Mr. Fuentes told the board that it needs to take students' First Amendment rights more seriously from the outset, and that any future efforts to censor the paper should prompt an immediate analysis of whether the censorship would be unlawful.

"When it comes to these students' First Amendment rights, don't shoot first and ask questions later," Mr. Fuentes told the board.

Upon learning of the school district's having halted distribution of the newspaper last week, Jenner & Block agreed to represent the newspaper's student editor on a pro bono basis.