Dangers of Silencing Students
By Lucy Cipriani
The primary purpose of newspapers is to inform the public and ignite discussions. For my final article, I felt the need to cover something big. I wanted to inspire critical thinking and spark conversation, so I chose to cover Smith v. Novato Unified School District, a freedom of speech case involving a former Novato High student. Andrew Smith won a long battle for his right to free speech when the California Supreme Court declined to review an appellate court ruling. By letting the ruling stand, the high court declared that Smith's free-speech rights were denied when school officials condemned an opinion article he wrote in the student newspaper in 2001 that opposed illegal immigration.
Some believe that students give up their rights to express themselves verbally when they arrive at school. Schools frequently reprimand students for comments made on social media or online, even if those comments are made away from school property and after school hours. School administrators often punish students who simply post an online comment that the school doesn’t approve of.
In addition, students, primarily those who report for the Swarm, often hold back from publishing work that ignites controversy. Today, we learn about the Smith case in government and journalism classes as a reminder that we have many more freedoms than we are aware of, and we have the right to exercise those freedoms.
Junior Swarm reporter Nick Jackson described his reservations when writing articles for the paper.
“I feel like I hold back certain opinions because I do not want to be judged by my classmates, other students, and by the staff,” claimed Jackson.
These feelings are prominent among journalism students as a result of the Smith case. Students are often fearful of disapproval or even punishment as a result of their publications.
Peter Ornstein, MSA director and film teacher at NHS, explained his experiences and opinions of freedom of speech in schools.
“I absolutely feel as if students have the right to criticize administration. Unfortunately, I’ve seen it in the past where administration get criticized and rather than either responding to the criticism or just letting it go, they want to shut everything down. I have seen schools where a principal was criticized in an article, and when asked for a statement, he refused to give one. He then proceeded to shut the whole paper down when the students published the article,” said Ornstein. “Administration is all about free speech and students speaking their mind, but when it comes down to it, they are just so prickly, and instead of responding or ignoring the publication, they react by doing the complete opposite and either squashing that kid or shutting the whole thing down.”
I reached out to Smith via Facebook, and after an informative conversation, he requested that our conversation remain off the record, preventing me from sharing his personal insight in this article. Although I am legally permitted to publish his quotes, as I told him that I was a reporter for The Swarm, I chose not to out of fear of backlash by Smith. This is a perfect example of the hesitation journalism students experience when reporting for the newspaper.
In November of 2001, the Novato High newspaper, The Buzz, published a controversial opinion article titled “Immigration.” Smith, a white male who was elected by his fellow classmates as the opinion editor, wrote this infamous story. In the newspaper article, Smith suggested that non-English-speaking immigrants be stopped and questioned and that a wall be built along the Mexican-U.S. border.
Come distribution day, there was an uproar of disapproval among students and faculty when Smith’s article reached the eyes of Novato students.
This reaction resulted in an apology to students, faculty, and parents, the immediate removal of all copies of The Buzz that contained Smith’s article, and a request for an accompanying counterpoint in the form of a second article.
"I am not a racist," Smith said at the time. "I'm a journalism student. I wanted to get a reaction out of people and I've done that."
In May 2002, Smith decided to pursue a lawsuit against the Novato Unified School District, claiming that district officials denied his freedom of speech rights by apologizing to students and parents for the first story and retracting remaining copies of the Buzz. He claimed that his First Amendment rights were violated.
Smith v. NUSD can be used as a reminder for students across the country that they have more rights to free speech than they might think. Despite the fact that many aspects of students’ rights have been recognized by the Supreme Court, teachers and administrators today still feel they have the right to oppress student free speech rights immediately as they step foot on campus. It is important to keep in mind that student journalists for this very newspaper have the same rights as the reporters from the San Francisco Chronicle or the Washington Post. Journalists will inevitably continue to test the limits on their right to free speech, in addition to setting an even greater example for students across the country.