Q: I am the editor of a public high school yearbook. An advertiser — a local real estate agent — submitted a family photo as part of his ad. In it, he is holding a hunting rifle (we live in hunting country.) Given the many incidents of gun-related school violence I asked for a different photo, but he has refused and told me that I’m illegally censoring him and I must publish the ad he submitted. Is he right?
A: The big legal question is who made the decision to reject the ad? As long as only you (and perhaps other student staffers) made the decision to reject the ad, you’re fine. The First Amendment limits the authority of government officials/actors to censor. Students — unlike teachers, including your adviser, and other public school officials — are not government actors. When a government actor restricts content, it’s censorship. (It may end up being legal censorship, but it does raise First Amendment concerns.) When a student editor restricts/changes content (whether it involves firearms or anything else), it’s simply editing.
This issue has come before courts a couple of times, most significantly in a big federal case out of Massachusetts where a court upheld the right of high school student newspaper and yearbook editors to reject an “abstinence-only” ad submitted by a local activist. Before reaching that decision, however, the court carefully reviewed the decision-making process, making sure that the ultimate decision to reject the ad was, in fact, made by students.
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