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Prowl staff wants policy repealed


December 22, 2004 - By MIKE ANTHONY

Executive Editor

Members of Oakville Senior High School's student newspaper believe a recently adopted Mehlville School District policy regulating advertising in school publications is unconstitutional and should be overturned.

Speaking on behalf of the Prowl staff, Oakville student Ian Darnell told the Board of Education last week that two advertisements for the Oakville Senior High School basketball program recently were deleted before publication because administrators determined the ads violated Mehlville policy KIAA, adopted by the board Sept. 30.

Policy KIAA states, in part, "Any advertising is subject to approval by the superintendent or his/her designee. The district's acceptance of such advertising (is) not intended to, and shall not, create an open forum for the expression of viewpoints or opinions. School publications will not accept advertising relating to any political, religious or philosophical organization, be-lief, position or subject matter.''

Policy KIAA was drafted by the school district's legal counsel, Kohn, Shands, Elbert, Gianoulakis & Giljum, according to information presented to the board Sept. 30.

The Board of Education took no action on the students' request to overturn the policy, referring the matter to the district's legal counsel.

During a period for public comment, Darnell told school board members, "... Essentially, we want you to overturn district policy KIAA. We want you to overturn this policy because it is unconstitutional and we also believe impractical and unreasonable.

"First, a little background: We first had a problem with this particular policy last week during the production of the boys' basketball program. Among the many advertisements that were going in, there were two ads that sparked the attention of the administration, apparently. One was an advertisement for a local church that was worship times and their address. The other was an ad that quoted the Constitution of the United States, specifically the 14th Amendment, and suggested that the readers think about it.

"We were told that we couldn't put these advertisements in the program, that they had to be deleted. When we asked for an explanation, we were given a copy of this policy KIAA. At the time, we complied with the policy, but we were concerned. So we contacted the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., and they confirmed what we had already believed, that this policy is unconstitutional,'' he said, citing two U.S. Supreme Court cases, Hazelwood School District et al. v. Kuhlmeier et al. and Rosen-berger v. Rectors and Visitors of the Univer-sity of Virginia.

Under the Supreme Court's decision in the Hazelwood case, Darnell contended, "... Public school administrations do not have an arbitrary right to censor material in student publications. Material may only be censored if it will disrupt the school's basic educational mission and then it's the administration's or the school board's responsibility to prove that a given piece of material will cause a disturbance. The enforcement of policy KIAA is unconstitutional under the Hazelwood ruling. The administration simply instructed the Prowl to remove the advertisements without ex-planation or evidence the advertisements' publication would cause some sort of educational disruption or disturbance on school grounds and to add to that, it also violated the Hazelwood ruling, which stated that particular pieces of materials for publication in the student press have to be considered on a case-by-case basis, not a block as it were under this policy.''

Referring to the Rosenberger case, he said, "This decision formalized the concept of content neutrality. Per the court's decision, public school administrations have no right to censor material in student publications simply because it is religious, political or philosophical in nature. Policy KIAA, which explicitly bans ideological advertising in student publications, clearly violates the Rosenberger decision.

"I would also remind the school board that there is ample legal precedent, both for professional and student publications, that advertising and regular content enjoys equal protection from censorship ...,'' he said.

Besides legal issues, Darnell said that the policy "has some serious questions of prac-ticality. For instance, who is deciding when material is philosophical? Isn't virtually all advertising, couldn't that all be construed as philosophical? Also, there's some question over when exactly this is being enforced. It seems to me that perhaps the administration could use this as an excuse to just censor advertisements they don't particularly like. After all, this year, even after this policy was passed, several advertisements that were certainly of a political nature were put into our publication, including one from the Korean War Veterans Association that said support our troops. Copies of that publication were sent to everyone on the school board and members of the administration, but no one apparently had a problem with that particular advertisement ...

"So because of its unconstitutionality and impracticality, I, on behalf of the Prowl staff, respectfully request that this school board reconsider KIAA and adopt a new policy that is constitutional as far as students' press rights are concerned and also changes itself so that it's a little bit more practical and exactly what constitutes philosophical advertising is more clearly defined,'' he said.

After Darnell concluded, board President Cindy Christopher said, "Ian, for your in-formation, this is an open forum as far as hearing issues, but at this point, we won't take any action on it, just so you know that.''

Prowl staffers remained at the meeting and Christopher raised the issue during a period for board member comments and agenda requests, asking that the information presented be given to the district's legal counsel.

Board Vice President Matthew Chellis noted that Darnell had provided the board with a copy of policy KIAA, the advertisements and the names of the cases he cited.

"... One thing that was not provided was the relief that is being sought specifically. What language would you offer or recommend for the proposed policy revision? That's something that you might provide us as well ... You might provide (that) to the administration for our future consideration,'' Chellis said.

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