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Can the school newspaper be punished for running a paid advertisement from a pro-life organization even though there are school policies against doing such?

Question | Student Press
A pro-life organization paid my student newspaper to run an ad. Shortly after our paper was distributed with the ad, the school board told our principal to remove the ad and justified the censorship based on two school policies: its prohibition against special interest groups and political advertisements. However, we have our own newspaper policy that would let us print the ad, so we kept it in our paper and on our digital newspaper website, but it was taken off the school board website. Our paper is funded by advertisements, students make editorial decisions under the supervision of our advisor, and we can take this class for credit. Can the students or advisor be punished for violating the school policy? Does the school board’s website censorship violate the First Amendment?

First, actions by the School Board have more power than a school newspaper's policies. This means, what the School Board does will control what the newspaper gets to do. For example, If the board has not censored similar ads in the past and there is no history of prior review, then the newspaper has more discretion in deciding what to print. This is what we call a limited public forum. Because the newspaper is a limited public forum, the journalists can decide what to print without seeking the administration’s approval first. This includes the pro-life advertisement. Based on these facts and the administration’s lack of prior review of the newspaper, the students and advisor will likely not get in trouble for printing the ad. 

Second, while the ad is protected under the First Amendment, it is still subject to time, place, and manner restrictions. To save you the hassle of reading legal mumbo-jumbo, these restrictions allow the school board to censor the pro-life ad (1) as long as it has a really good reason to do so based on state interests, (2) as long as it isn’t specifically seeking out pro-life ads only, and (3) as long as the school board isn’t totally shuttingdown every outlet for the newspaper. (If you are interested in the legal terms, though, the restrictions have to be narrowly tailored to serve a legitimate state interest. The restrictions must be content-neutral, and cannot eliminate all channels of expression). These restrictions allow the school board to censor this ad, and we think the board has a pretty good argument. We’ll break this down later, but the board likely did not violate the First Amendment. 


There are some important details that bring us to the conclusion that this newspaper is a limited public forum and able to print the ad without fear of punishment. Those details include no history or practice of prior review by the administration, the students deciding what they want to print, and the paper being funded by the sale of advertisements. This means the paper is student-run and a limited public forum. There are two other forums—public forum and non-public forum—and those are the least and most restrictive forums, respectively. Here, the limited public forum falls in the middle. That means there’s wiggle room for student discretion, but the student paper isn’t totally without restriction. 

Those details we mentioned are not the only important things we will look for to determine whether a newspaper is a limited public forum. Other factors include whether the paper was produced as part of the school curriculum, whether students received grades and credit, whether faculty oversaw the publication, whether the school deviated from its policy regarding production of the school newspaper as part of the curriculum, the degree of control the administration exercised, and the effects of the written school policy.

Many of these factors apply here, which establishes that the school intended this student newspaper to be a limited public forum. Students basically ran the show with supervision and are able to choose what they want to print, from stories to pro-life ads to guest columns. Neither the students nor the advisor should fear discipline for printing the pro-life ad because it is within their right to do so.

If you are curious whether your student publication is a limited public forum, check out our Q&A, “How do I know if my school’s newspaper is a limited public forum?”

The limited public forum definitely seems helpful to the newspaper, but what about the policies?

There are conflicting school and newspaper policies here, you are correct, but we think the students and advisor have no need to fear. While the school may have policies against printing these kinds of ads, the policies are undermined by the school’s failure to enforce them previously. Through actual practice, the school has likely tolerated previously political advertisements or ones for special interest groups and is only enforcing the policies in this particular instance. Actual practice and a lack of enforcement in similar previous situations carries more effect than the school policy. 

Don’t get us wrong, the policies do matter, as you will see with the next question! But, if students have been consistently advised, based on the school’s previous acceptance of other ads that there was no need to seek permission and they worked within journalism standards and ethics, they were free to publish the material they wanted. In addition, the students could have printed pro-choice ads if an organization wanted to buy ad space, but there was no such organization seeking to do so. 

Because the students’ conduct did not run contrary to the school’s common practice, journalism standards, or their own manual, they are likely not subject to discipline. The student newspaper’s faculty advisor is also likely not subject to discipline.

How is the online ad different from the ad in the student newspaper, and how does the school board’s removal of the ad not violate the First Amendment?

The school board is likely within its right to take the ad off its own website because of time, place, and manner restrictions. There are some requirements for a restriction to be allowed under the First Amendment. It has to be (1) content-neutral, (2) narrowly tailored to serve a state interest, and (3) cannot eliminate all channels of expression. In this case, this means that the school board cannot seek to regulate specific content. The reason for removal needs to be specific and based on a really good state reason, and it needs to allow for the speech to be expressed in different ways.

Let’s start with the first one: content neutrality. Content neutrality means the government can’t shut down speech based on its message or content. This is a close call. The school board is trying to regulate speech in compliance with its policies, not because it disagrees with the message of the ad. While the students can probably make a good argument that the ad was censored based on its pro-life content, the school only pulled the ad from its own website and did not censor the newspaper in other ways. It is significant that previously published ads that fall under the school’s policy were about political candidates, not special interest groups, so the school board is not suddenly deciding to change its course with its own website. This is new territory given that it is a pro-life special interest group, and the school board can decide to remove the ad from its website. The facts cut both ways when determining content-neutrality, but we think it leans just a bit more in favor of the school when it comes to the website.

Second, the decision to pull the ad from the website is narrowly tailored. The board’s decision does not prevent the ad from running in other places, such as the student newspaper itself. Other means of promoting the ad are not limited. Plus, the decision was made to prevent a violation of school board policy, which is definitely a legitimate state interest. 

Finally, the time, place, and manner restrictions cannot eliminate all channels of expression. We see this is the case with the student newspaper still printing the ad in a hard copy and with the uploading of the ad to the newspaper’s digital version. This last requirement basically seals the deal for the school board when it comes to the removal of the ad from a website it owns. It is permissible to remove the ad from its own website and that removal is not a violation of the First Amendment because the ad was still available on other channels of expression, namely the student newspaper, both print and digital versions. 

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