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Student Press Law: Cert Denied in Lewd Stick Figure Cartoon Case

By Robyn Hagan Cain on October 14, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Before we saw Team America: World Police for the first time, a friend explained that the film's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, (better known as the South Park masterminds), had to cut a puppet sex scene from the theatrical release version of the film to avoid an NC-17 rating.

We wondered how puppets could make the Motion Picture Association of America so uncomfortable. Then we saw the movie, and understood.

In May, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a student press law case that stick figures in sexual positions, much like Stone and Parker's puppets, could be "unquestionably lewd" and thus subject to school newspaper censorship.

This week, the Supreme Court denied certiorari in the case, R.O. v. Ithaca City School District, cementing the holding in student press law, for now.

Back in our school newspaper days, we frequently cursed Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the 1988 Supreme Court decision that schools could exercise editorial control over school-sponsored newspapers as long as such censorship was "reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns." We thought we were journalists and entitled to free speech rights. Our principal, (who, to be fair, never actually censored us), maintained that he had final say over content since the school's budget funded the paper.

In R.O. v. Ithaca City School District, however, the lewd stick figure cartoon in question was published in an independent school publication (i.e., one not subsidized by the school), yet the Second Circuit still applied Hazelwood reasoning to the case. Other circuits, by contrast, have refused to apply Hazelwood to non-public fora.

Does this decision really affect students' free speech rights? Yes.

While the Second Circuit Court of Appeals is known for its rogue opinions, school administrators in circuits that have not yet issued opinions on independent student publications are likely to seize upon the stick figure cartoon case as justification for censorship.

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