Free Speech Prevails for Students Throughout San Diego

SAN DIEGO – A year after the principal of La Jolla High School whitewashed students’ political messages from its free speech benches, the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties and the San Diego Unified School District agreed to a settlement greatly strengthening the free speech rights of all district students. The settlement goes well beyond the senior benches at La Jolla High, marking a major victory for student speech in California and the nation. The settlement includes an updated and constitutionally-sound free speech policy for all students in the San Diego Unified School District.

In February 2011, LJHS’s principal, Dana Shelburne, challenged students’ right to express themselves on the school’s “senior benches,” a traditional forum for student speech. For generations, the school has allowed students to paint messages on the benches. On February 15, the day after massive popular protests erupted in Iran, Shelburne immediately ordered protected political speech painted by two students advocating “Freedom for Iran” and “Down with Dictator” to be painted over.

Shelburne later declared that the benches were reserved only for “positive messages about LJHS students and school activities.” The San Diego ACLU and the law firm Bostwick & Jassy LLP challenged that declaration, arguing that “positive messages” is a vague and unconstitutional standard for curtailing student speech. On May 27, Shelburne announced that he intended to remove the benches with a forklift rather than allow students a continued platform for free speech. The ACLU and Bostwick & Jassy LLP petitioned the court for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction and stopped Shelburne from removing or censoring the benches.

“This is a major victory for not only La Jolla High School students, but for all students throughout the district,” said David Loy, legal director of the San Diego ACLU. “This updated free speech policy will allow students across San Diego to exercise their free speech rights, unfettered by administrative censorship.”

“It riled me to see my alma mater turn its back on the First Amendment,” said Jean-Paul Jassy, an LJHS graduate (class of ’92) and partner in Bostwick & Jassy LLP, co-counsel in the lawsuit against Shelburne and the school district. “While students at La Jolla High School understood the meaning of free speech, sadly, the administration needed to be educated in what our First Amendment actually means.”

The new speech policy clarifies that students are not required to ask the administration to review messages that they want to paint on the senior benches, and revises district policy to clarify the review process for student messages.

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