U.S. District Court Judge Albert V. Bryan yesterday scoffed at the Fairfax County School Board's censorship of a Hayfield High School newspaper article discussing birth control and hinted he may rule whether the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press extends to the student paper.
"From your brief I thought we were faced with a monumental, outrageous article," Bryan told school board representatives. "The content of the articel can't be more benign. I declare, I don't see why the board would choose this article to throw down the gauntlet.
The editors of Hayfield's "The Farm News," Lauren Boyd, 17, and Gina Gambino, 17, objected to the censorship and brought the case before Bryan arguing that their constitutional rights had been violated.
The school's principal, Doris Torrice, had objected to printing certain parts of the artice, which discussed students at the school who are "sexually active" and do not use contraception. Her objections were upheld by the school board on grounds that printing the article would amount to teaching birth control, which is contrary to school board policy, school officials said.
The school board maintains that school authorities have ultimate control over the students paper because it is partly supported by taxpayers' money. School board attorney Thomas J. Cawley argued that students could override board policies if they were allowed to print material contrary to school rules and directives.
At one point, Judge Bryan, sitting in the Alexandria federal District Court, remarked: "Age doesn't put First Amendment cases on one side and nothing on the other. It (the law) doesn't say high school students or seventh and eighth graders don't have First Amendment rights."
If Bryan rules in favor of the students, "school districts are going to be faced with chaos," Cawley said. "We will not have a school newspaper at all or we can't even make rules for our own paper."
According to school guidelines, students are encouraged to follow canons of journalism observed by regular newspaper, but they cannot publish anything that could disrupt normal school activities.
The article at issue would not disrupt school and students can get more "explicit and detailed (sexual) material from the (school) library," argued Chris B. Fager, director of the Student Press Law Center of the Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Students were not normally told what they could or could not publish and the paper had acted as an open forum. Fager said.
The Judge said, "Even if it's a school supported newspaper, once you give the man the soapbox you don't tell him what he can say. Maybe you don't give him one."
Cawley disputed Fager's contention that the paper is an open forum.
He also said: "I think it's hard to avoid" The Farm News. "What are they supposed to do, publish it in a brown bag or write a headline, "There May be Something You May Not Want to read?'"
Bryan said the school board had the right to set policies against teaching sex education, but asked Cawley, "What in this article do you think teaches sex education?"
"They haven't done anything to teach students where and how," Fager said during the proceedings.