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California law on student free speech left intact by high court ruling

If not for a California law that spells out student rights of free expression, Friday's edition of the newspaper at Homestead High might not have included a scheduled story on AIDS. Minutes after last Wednesday's United States Supreme Court ruling on the student press that lets school officials censor school-sponsored publications, the principal at the Cupertino, Calif., school ``told us to shelve the story,'' says Mike Calcagno, editor in chief of The Epitaph.

Mr. Calcagno, a senior, resigned in protest but then learned of a California law protecting student free-speech rights. After checking that the law had not been invalidated by the ruling, student journalists decided to go ahead and print the story.

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The California law - the only one in the US that explicitly protects student free expression - may become a model for other states in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, says Martha Kegel, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union's northern California chapter. In the decision, the court ruled 5 to 3 that a student newspaper, because it is an educational tool used in concert with the classroom curriculum, is subject to the control of school officials.

The California statute, part of the state education code, ``has been on the books for years, but no one paid much attention to it because it was thought that First Amendment protections [of the US Constitution] were enough,'' says Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington. ``Now it looks as if California students are the only ones to have the protections against arbitrary censorship.''

The law, however, does not grant students a blanket right to free speech - and outlines the circumstances under which a school official may pull a story. It says articles may be pulled if a school administrator can show it is: obscene; libelous or slanderous; incites students ``so as to create a clear and present danger'' of disrupting the school, breaking the law, or disobeying lawful school regulations.

``The Supreme Court is right in one sense: As a matter of constitutional rights, you can't prevent a principal from pulling a story,'' says Bill Honig, California's superintendent of public instruction. ``What we've done in California is set different standards that spell out when such an action is appropriate - and it has been working with problems.''

The Journalism Education Association, in anticipation of the ruling, has been urging student journalists and their teachers to set editorial policies for their publications - with an eye to minimizing administration interference unless the policies are breached, says JEA president Kenson Siver.

``In most high schools, the ruling will make no difference,'' Dr. Siver says. ``Most principals are not going to be inclined to use the decision as a lever, but the opportunity certainly exists.''

Meanwhile, at Homestead High School, principal Jim Warren emphasizes he had no problem with the quality or content of the article about an unidentified student who had tested positive for the AIDS virus. ``I simply needed time to learn if the [court] decision had substantially changed my responsibilities,'' he says. Once assured the decision did not require him to act, and buoyed by the California law, ``I stepped back, and the article appeared in [Friday's] edition.''

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