LOS ANGELES — A Kern County judge is expected to issue a court order today that will ensure that Bakersfield high school students are not wrongly censored and that student free speech rights in the district are preserved.
"Even though I'm in college now, I really wanted to make sure that future newspaper staffs could write about serious topics like sexual orientation in a meaningful way without worrying that they would be censored," said Maria Krauter, former editor-in-chief of The Kernal. "Now I know that's the case."
The final step comes a year and a half after the ACLU of Southern California and the law firm Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP filed a lawsuit after student journalists and their interview subjects were prohibited from publishing a series in the East Bakersfield High School student newspaper, The Kernal, about sexual orientation and gender identity.
The agreement, which is signed by the ACLU/SC, Milbank and the Kern High School District and will be filed with Superior Court Judge Sidney P. Chapin today, affirms that 'all students have the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press' and that school officials may turn to censorship only as a last resort.
It states: 'Prior to any restriction of student speech, school officials will consider all practical alternative options, and, where feasible, will implement any such practical alternative options instead of restricting the speech."
'This is a momentous day,' said Christine Sun, the ACLU/SC attorney who represented the six students and their co-plaintiff, the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, throughout the fight. 'From day one the students knew they had been wrongly censored and vowed to make sure this didn't happen to the next generation of Kern students. Under this policy, the students would not have been censored in the first place.'
Sun said that the legally-binding agreement came about as part of settlement discussions between the ACLU/SC and the District this fall. Part of the settlement included a change to district free speech policy, which the Kern High School District trustees drafted and approved in October.
'This consent decree is a victory for students' free speech rights and sets an important example for other school districts that school officials must take proactive steps to protect students from harassment and threats of violence before resorting to censorship of students' free speech,' said Carolyn Laub, executive director and founder of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network. Nearly 600 schools in California have Gay-Straight Alliance clubs.
Students originally sought to publish the articles in the second to last edition of the paper during the 2004-2005 academic year, but could not after the East High principal, citing vague threats to gay students, demanded the students pull the articles. The student journalists and their sources went to court seeking an order allowing them to publish the articles in the final edition of the paper.
The court denied the request, stating that more information about the district's reasons for censoring the articles was needed. Over the summer and fall school officials failed to produce evidence of their claims that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students would be harmed as a result of the publication of the articles.
The lawsuit also revealed the principal took no steps to inform those students' parents or the police officer assigned to the school of the alleged threats. In October 2005, the school relented and the articles were printed last November.
The students continued the lawsuit in order to obtain a policy that would prevent other students from being wrongfully censored, a goal that they achieved today with the consent decree.
Michael Diamond, Rick Baker and Jeff Goldman from Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP were co-counsel along with Sun and James Esseks of the ACLU LGBT and AIDS Project.