A decision by the Roseville Joint Union High School District board this month to give the superintendent the right to approve advertising content in school newspapers and yearbooks has sparked a First Amendment civil rights debate within the district.
And given the legal issues being raised, it could have broad implications for school districts in the region and throughout California.
"The district is opening themselves up to a lot more liability than they are protecting themselves from," said Adam Goldstein, an attorney advocate with Student Press Law Center in Virginia.
He said the new policy could result in lawsuits from students who believe their First Amendment rights have been violated, as well as from advertisers who say their right to religious speech has been quashed.
The controversy began Oct. 9, when the trustees decided to update the district's policy on advertising in school facilities and student publications. They gave the superintendent the right to approve advertising content and to prohibit political campaigning and religious symbols in ads.
Karl Grubaugh is adviser for the award-winning Granite Bay (High) Gazette, one of five student newspapers in the school district. He said the change violates the state Education Code's protection of students' freedom of speech and their control over the content in school publications.
Assistant Superintendent Ron Severson told The Bee that district officials were within their rights to put restrictions on ads but were open to working with journalism advisers and the Student Press Law Center to try to come up with a resolution.
The talks between Goldstein and district officials persuaded the district to revisit the issue. On Tuesday, Severson told The Bee the district would revise its new policy, modeling it on less-restrictive board policies that "don't infringe on press rights."
He said the proposed change is expected to go before the board Nov. 13.
Initially the district stood by its changes, saying it had been written "nearly verbatim" from a sample policy from the California School Boards Association.
But Goldstein said the problem is that approach doesn't allow advertising in student publications the same protections as editorial copy.
"I don't really have words for how bad the CSBA policy is," he said. "Any school district that paid money for this policy should immediately demand a refund. It's as if CSBA exists in a parallel universe where, if you act confused enough about the meaning of black-letter law, it doesn't apply to you any more."
Elaine Yama-Garcia, an attorney for the CSBA, said its policy was vetted by staff attorneys and a committee. She disagrees with Goldstein's contention that advertising should be treated the same as editorial content.
"I think he is misinterpreting the law," she said.
CSBA spokeswoman Laurie Weidner said its policies are guidelines for local school boards to consider. "They are the local steward and they should fashion the policy for their communities."
Roseville's trustees did make a few tweaks in CSBA's model policy, most notably prohibiting the use of religious iconology in ads namely crosses, the Star of David and other religious symbols.
The CSBA policy warns school boards that "the law is unclear as to whether districts can prohibit the distribution of materials or advertising of a religious nature." It suggests that district officials consult an attorney if they want to restrict religious messages.
San Juan Unified also prohibits advertisements in school publications that promote a particular religious interest.
The Roseville school district's decision to prohibit religious symbols concerned Brad Dacus, president of the conservative Pacific Justice Institute, who called the restriction unconstitutional, troublesome and a violation of the First Amendment.
"I'm curious as to their rationale," Dacus said. "Do they feel that the religious freedom of a cross fits into a category of being obscene? I'm somewhat baffled to know what the threat is."
He said the organization would investigate and offer free guidance to anyone who complains to them about "any school district that is engaging in this kind of intolerant policy that censors religious speech and expression."
Goldstein reviewed the policies of Elk Grove Unified, San Juan Unified, Sacramento City Unified and Twin Rivers Unified. "Virtually all of these look like they're over the line in one dimension or another," he said. "That's probably because the CSBA's policy is so bad."
Sacramento's major school districts give its officials final approval of paid advertisements in yearbooks and school newspapers. Sacramento City Unified's policy goes so far as to say "all advertising must be reviewed by school administration."
Elk Grove Unified also includes a clause that allows the superintendent to establish additional criteria that could further limit advertising content.
Students don't need to be told which ads they can or cannot run in the paper, said Grubaugh, who has worked as a copy editor at The Bee. Publications at Granite Bay High School are governed by policy written by students years ago. The guidelines already prohibit ads that are obscene, libelous, advertise a product illegal for minors or that are against the basic policies of the district.
Advertisers include local driving schools, yogurt shops, a couple of orthodontists and dentists, Realtors, tuxedo and flower shops, bookstores and a few churches, Grubaugh said.
"If a tattoo parlor wants to come and put an ad in my paper you could get a tattoo with parent signature at 16 we will run that ad." Grubaugh said. "If a church wants to advertise Sunday services, we are going to run that ad."
He said all the students on the school newspaper are required to sell advertising.
Many people will be watching carefully to see how Roseville Joint Union modifies its policy.
Goldstein said his organization takes legal action against a district only if a student complains.
Grubaugh said that could happen. "My kids know the law," he said. " These are smart kids. They are savvy and come from families with resources. They have parents who are interested in what their kids do and what they care about."