The Arlington County School Board last week voted to relax its controls on student publications. The action came as a result of a recent controversy between the school board and a student over the distribution of an underground newspaper.
The new regulations, outlined in the "Students Responsibilities and Rights" document for Arlington schools, describe in greater detail what types of student publications come under "reasonable" control of school authorities, and limits the extent of that control.
The new regulations were adopted to comply with an order given in March by a federal judge that they conform to First Amendment guarantees for freedom of the press.
"This means that material of so-called questionable taste that a principal might have stopped before it will be able to get through," said a school spokesman.
The new policy attempts to clarify earlier regulations that stated that student publications must conform to "journalistic standards of accuracy, taste and decency maintained by the newspaper of general circulation in Arlington."
Judge Robert A. Merhige Jr. in February called the old regulations "a monument to vagueness" and therefore unconstitutional. An order signed by Judge Albert V. Bryan Jr. in an Alexandria federal court decision March 25 required that the regulations conform with First Amendment guarantees and that the school board pay $2,500 in damages to a student suspended for distributing an underground newspaper.
The order resulted from an out-of-court settlement between the school board and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lalwyers for Washington and Lee student Joshua Leibner, 17, who was suspended in November for selling his one-page fictional and satirical newspaper, "The Green Orange."
Leibner had brought a suit against the school board after Washington and Lee principal William Sharbaugh suspended him for distributing the paper after Sharbaugh forbade it. Sharbaugh said the paper was of "questionable taste, decency and journalistic standards."
Richard Crouch, an ACLU attorney who was involved with the Leibner case and helped the school board revise its regulations, said the new version is "quite satisfactory."
"Personally, I think the new draft is a pretty good one; at least the one I read is," he said. "It is much improved over their earlier version. That one was obscene."
The new regulations allow the principal to "exercise reasonable control" over student speech or publications only when either "probably will cause a substantial disruption of, or material interference with, school activities or interference with the rights of other students."
Under the new regulations, the principal, or a representative he appoints, can determine how, when and where material that has been judged disruptive will be distributed. But the principal may forbid publication of disruptive material or set conditions on its distribution only if he can prove that school activities are likely to be disturbed.
"Granted, proving this before the fact would be difficult; everyone recognizes that," said attorney Henry St. John FitzGerald who drafted both the original and revised regulations for the school board. "But the principal still has the right to stop it; the difficulty is with the proof."
As in the previous regulations, all student publications must be submitted to the principal for prior review before distribution. Any decision by the principal may be appealed to the superintendent of schools, and any student who distributes material without prior review may be punished by suspension, the regulations say.
In addition, the regulations forbid students from one school distributing material in another without permission from the other school's principal.