Court of Appeals Rules in Favor of Waukon Student Newspaper
By Patrick Hogan, Reporter
WAUKON, Iowa - The Iowa Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a Waukon High School journalism teacher Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011, in a case surrounding the free speech rights of student journalists.
Teacher Ben Lange was officially reprimanded by the Allamakee School District on two separate occasions after students published articles in the Waukon Senior High School Tribe-une, the student newspaper, that the district felt were inappropriate.
The first incident involved the April 2, 2008, edition, an April Fool’s Day special. It was made up of parody articles with headlines such as “Meth Lab Found in Biology Lab,” with an accompanying photo of a biology teacher. The newspaper included a disclaimer on each page that it was a parody, and none of the articles were true.
The district also took issue with several articles in the Sept. 30, 2009, issue, which included an article about students in the school who chew tobacco along side a picture of a baby smoking a cigarette.
The school district argued that this behavior violated section 280.22 of the Iowa Code, which states the student right of free expression is limited in school publications if it is obscene or libelous, and if it encourages unlawful acts, violates school regulations or disrupts the school.
The district court ruled in the school district’s favor, but the appellate judges felt that none of the content rose from “potentially encouraging” unlawful acts to actually doing so.
“Because Iowa lawmakers passed section 280.22 to broaden students’ free speech rights, we believe that the legislative intent would be to read the exceptions narrowly,” the decision states.
The court also wrote that it did not see any libel in the material.
Allamakee School District Superintendent Dave Herold said the district was reviewing the decision and that it was too early to comment.
While the issue being considered was student free speech, the lawsuit actually addressed Lange’s reprimands, which the court ruled should be rescinded.
Drake University law professor Sally Frank was worried about the effect the reprimands would have on what students felt they could and couldn’t say in their newspaper. She prepared an amicus brief along with the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Virginia, for the case on behalf of Lange.
“You’d normally expect it to be the students who were censored and in this case it was the teacher,” she said. “There was nothing in the articles that should’ve resulted in a reprimand.”
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