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Speech may not be suppressed nor any speaker punished unless the final determination that specific words are unprotected is made by an impartial, independent decisionmaker.
Appellants, Donna Thomas, John Tiedeman, David Jones, and Richard Williams, all students in the Granville Junior-Senior High School, produced a satirical publication addressed to the school community. The paper was almost exclusively produced after school hours and off school property. Upon learning of the publication, the school board, following consultation with the Board of Education, suspended the students. Subsequently, the students and their parents brought the present suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the Northern District of New York seeking injunctive and declaratory relief from alleged deprivations of their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Appellants alleged that their rights under U.S. Const. amend. I were violated when respondents, various officials and employees of a county board of education, suspended appellant students for publishing and distributing a satirical paper. The district court judge denied the appellants’ application for preliminary and injunctive relief, ruling there had been an insufficient showing of likely success on the merits to warrant a preliminary injunction. The district court further ruled that the contents of the paper were not protected by the First Amendment. Although no school rule specifically governed student publications, the district court judge held that the appellants’ activities fell within the scope of a school regulation adopted pursuant to New York Education Law § 3214, subd. 6(1), authorizing suspension of students who were insubordinate or disorderly, or whose conduct otherwise endangers the safety, morals, health or welfare of others. Appellants sought review of the judgment.
By curtailing the students’ publication, did the respondents violate the students’ right to free speech, thereby necessitating the grant of relief in favor of appellants?
The appellate court found that the lower court erred in refusing appellants' request for relief. The court found that respondents' actions in curtailing the publication by appellant students violated the constitutional right to free speech. The court noted that in this case, the appellants diligently bored to ensure that the publication was printed outside the school, and that no copies were sold on school grounds, and since school officials have ventured out of the school yard and into the general community where the freedom accorded expression was at its zenith, their actions must be evaluated by the principles that bind government officials in the public arena. Thus, wholly apart from the ultimate constitutional status of the words employed, these punishments could only have been decreed and implemented by an independent, impartial decision-maker. Because the appellees did not satisfy this standard, the court that the punishments imposed cannot withstand the proscription of the First Amendment. The court further ruled that it cannot permit school administrators to seek approval of the community-at-large by punishing students for expression that took place off school property. Nor may courts endorse such punishment because the populace would approve. The First Amendment will not abide the additional chill on protected expression that would inevitably emanate from such a practice. The court noted that the risk was simply too great that school officials will punish protected speech and thereby inhibit future expression. Since the court was unable to ascertain the current status of the sanctions imposed against appellant students, it remanded the case to the lower court for further proceedings.