Students in Bellingham can continue distributing at school the alternative newspaper they produce thanks to help from the ACLU. Brothers Tim and Matt Petryni, who attend Fairhaven Middle School and Sehome High School, created the RAT in the living room of their home. The paper contains opinion essays and stories about school issues and politics that are contributed by students at schools in the Bellingham area. The enterprising student publishers recover their costs by selling advertising space to local merchants.
The Petryni brothers ran into trouble while distributing their paper on campus last year. Administrators confiscated copies of the RAT and ordered the students to halt distribution, though no formal disciplinary action was taken. The district claimed that student publications must be preapproved before being distributed on school grounds.
ACLU staff attorney Aaron Caplan sent a letter to the school board explaining that students have the right to distribute materials written off-campus without the permission of a school administrator. He also made clear that a system of “prior restraint” over student speech is unconstitutional. Prior restraint – requiring administrative approval of written materials before they may be distributed – violates the free speech guarantee of the First Amendment. In Burch v. Barker, a landmark 1988 ACLU case involving an unofficial publication by students at Renton’s Lindbergh High School, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the right of public school students to publish their own newspapers – even if the content offends or embarrasses school officials.
In response to the ACLU's advocacy, the district drafted a new policy which allows students to distribute publications produced outside school without prior approval. The policy does include a condition that students may be punished if their independent newspapers are “defamatory,” “indecent,” “not appropriate to the age group,” and so on. The ACLU is concerned that such restrictions could be enforced arbitrarily or in other unconstitutional ways. We will be watching to make sure that the new policy is not misused to restrict the students’ free speech rights.