A federal judge yesterday prohibited the Fairfax County School Board from censoring an article on birth control in the Hayfield High School newspaper, saying the high school publication is entitled to freedom of the press under the Constitution.
. . . The newspaper is not in reality a part of the curriculum of the school and . . . is entitled to First Amendment protection," Judge Albert V. Bryan Jr. ruled yesterday. "The power of the School Board to regulate course content will not support its action (banning the article) in this case."
Parts of the article, "Sexually Active Students Fail to Use Contraception," were censored by Hayfield High School principal Doris Torrice because school regulations prohibit the teaching of contraception. The article was written last November by Lauren Boyd, 17, who with Gina Gambino, 17, edits The Farm News at Hayfield, 7630 Telegraph Rd. south of Alexandria.
The students chose not to publish the article rather than to print it without referring to birth control.
The School Board and superintendent backed the principal, saying that printing the article would override the School Board's authority. The board also decided that because the publication is partly supported by taxes, students do not have ultimate control over the newspaper's content.
The newspaper is a school activity "subject to the same administrative controls as other education programs," the school board said.
School board attorney Thomas J. Cawley said in a hearing last week that giving students control of school newspaper could cause chaos. Students could become irresponsible.
Bryan, in his 11-page opinion, said the First Amendment applies to students as well as adults and only differs in degree.
"While the scope of constitutional freedom may vary with the nature of the environment and the maturity of the individuals affected," Judge Bryan stated, "the considerations governing the applicability of (the) First Amendment . . . do not change. Either the First Amendment is operative, or it is not."
Bryan also said he cannot rule on the possibility of irresponsibility in the future and that "no evidence of it has surfaced in the past or in the article here in question, nor has there been any demonstrated likelihood of it in the future."
As for the article itself, Bryan said, "In fact, upon an actual reading of the article, the Court is surprised at its innocuousness and that it could spawn the controversy at hand."
Bryand said he does not question the board's right to establish school policy. He said he would not rule on the Consitutionality of the school's regulations. The judge said however, "Once a publication is determined to be in substance a free speech forum, constitutional protections attach and the state may restrict the content of that instrument only in accordance with First Amendment dictates."
". . . Based upon the Language in the (school code) concerning publications and upon review of articles published in the past by the newspaper without objection . . . (the newspaper) was conceived, established and operated as a conduit for student expression on a wide variety of topics. It falls clearly within the parameters of the First Amendment."
The decision is "a warning to high school administrations in Virginia and elsewhere," according to a statement by the Student Press Law Center whose attorney Chris Fager represented the Boyd and Gambino.
Judge Bryan's decision means that high school newspapers are "not editorial puppets of school officials, only printing official points of view," the law center said.
The decision, however, can apply only to those newspapers that are conceived as a vehicle of student expression and not in-house publications, Fager said. At least four other similar federal court cases involving high school publications have been decided in favor of the students, Fager said.
"You have to look at the nature of each publication," Fager said. "But my experience with high school journalism is the majority are set up just like "The Farm News."
Bryan also told student editors they can file an injunction against the school board prohibiting it from banning any parts of the article. The School Board must pay the editor's attorney's fees, Bryan said.
Coeditor Gambino, reached last night, said the ruling isn't "going to make much of a difference" at The Farm News. "We always operate on the premise that the editor makes the decisions," she declared.
She said the editors will wait to determine whether the School Board plans an appeal or other action before going ahead with publication of the article. She added: "We're not going to run out and try to find some sexy story or anything like that."
The School Board met in private with its legal counsel last night to discuss the judge's ruling, But reached no decision.