The state Supreme Court rejected the Novato school district's challenge Wednesday to a ruling that upheld a high school journalist's right to write an anti-immigrant editorial and affirmed California's strong legal protections for students' free speech.
The justices unanimously denied review of an appeal by the Novato Unified School District, which was told by a lower court that it had violated the student's rights by yanking copies of the school newspaper out of circulation and telling parents that the editorial shouldn't have been published.
The student, Andrew Smith, wrote an editorial in the Novato High School newspaper in November 2001 saying any Latino who couldn't speak English was probably an illegal immigrant and should be taken in for questioning.
After hearing complaints, the principal held an assembly for parents and students, then ordered the remaining issues removed from circulation and sent a letter to parents saying the editorial violated school standards and shouldn't have run.
Smith said he was physically attacked on campus soon afterward. He was not disciplined by the school for the editorial and continued writing for the newspaper. He now attends community college in Santa Rosa, his lawyer said.
His suit sought $1 in nominal damages and a declaration that the school district had violated his rights. A Marin County judge rejected Smith's claims but was overruled May 21 by the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco.
"A school may not prohibit student speech simply because it presents controversial ideas and opponents of the speech are likely to cause disruption," Justice Linda Gemello said in the 3-0 ruling.
The court relied on a 1971 California statute, the nation's first state law to protect free speech in public schools. The law says students are entitled to freedom of speech and of the press unless what they say is obscene or libelous, or creates a "clear and present danger" of lawbreaking or disorder on campus.
Speech that is provocative remains protected, Gemello said, unless the speaker calls for a disturbance, or "the manner of expression (as opposed to the contents of the ideas) is so inflammatory that the speech itself provokes the disturbance."
Gemello said Smith's editorial was written in a "disrespectful and unsophisticated manner" but contained no direct provocation or racial epithets.
The ruling said the California law is a stronger shield for student expression than the constitutional protections recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The nation's high court has ruled that students have free-speech rights, but has also allowed school officials to remove material they considered inappropriate from student newspapers.
In June, the court upheld the suspension of an Alaska high school student who unfurled a banner reading "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" outside the school grounds, a message that Chief Justice John Roberts said could be reasonably interpreted as promoting illegal drug use.
"The (U.S.) Supreme Court is moving away from protection of student speech on high school campuses, and the California courts seem to be moving in the opposite direction," said attorney Paul Beard of the Pacific Legal Foundation, which represented Smith.
The Novato school district argued that the state law wasn't intended to go beyond the federal standard and should be interpreted to let school authorities decide whether a statement is likely to incite disruption.
The appeals court ruling "greatly curtails the ability of school administrators to deal with incidents of violence which may be caused by students exercising their free-speech rights," Dennis Walsh, the district's lawyer, said in court papers.
The case is Smith vs. Novato Unified School District, S154067. E-mail Bob Egelko at