IN most American communities, nobody bats an eyelash when school-board meetings erupt in clashes over curriculum.
But two years after the United States Supreme Court upheld the right of school administrators to censor student newspapers, the buzz in some districts has turned from what students ought to learn to what they should be allowed to print.
Or refuse to print.
A case in Lexington, Mass., has added a new wrinkle to the debate over student press freedoms: whether or not student papers have a responsibility to publish the opinions of community members.
In April, the editors of Lexington High School's student newspaper, the Musket, declined to print a full-page ad sponsored by the Lexington Parents Information Network (Lexnet). The ad read: ``We know you can do it! Abstinence: The Healthy Choice.''
Convinced that the refusal was ideologically motivated, Lexnet founder Douglas Yeo filed suit in federal court, claiming the school-financed newspaper was a public forum and the rejection of his ad was tantamount to a violation of his first-amendment right to free speech.
But Musket business editor Doug Shen says, ``The content of the ad was irrelevant. We just wanted to be fair; that was the most important thing. We were trying to protect the integrity of our paper, not thinking of the legal implications. Initially, we thought there might be more controversy if we printed the ad.''
Aware of its broad implications, national advocacy groups have entered the fracas.
``We're interested in free-speech cases as they relate to political correctness,'' says Craig Parshall, attorney for the Rutherford Institute, a conservative Virginia-based legal fund representing Mr. Yeo. ``In greater Boston, and especially in Lexington, anyone who supports abstinence ... or opposes condom distribution in the schools is not considered politically correct.''
With Mr. Parshall as counsel, Yeo sought an injunction in May to force the Musket to print the ad in its graduation issue. Because the paper is funded by public money, Parshall argued, it ``cannot arbitrarily decline to print ads because they don't like the people involved.'' The school board, represented by the Boston law firm of Testa, Hurwitz, and Thibeault on a pro-bono basis, countered by citing the paper's stated tradition of editorial independence. Lead counsel Jason Berger also cited a recent Massachusetts statute protecting the First Amendment rights of students.
Although a federal judge denied the injunction and the graduation issue of the Musket was printed without the ad, Yeo's lawyers have filed an appeal and may proceed with a suit seeking damages.
Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., says the case is unique, as it involves a community group rather than students and school officials. Usually, he says, it is the administrators who want to control a school newspaper's content. ``It's rare for a school board to stand behind the students,'' he says.
Five states (California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, and Massachusetts) already have laws protecting student publications, Mr. Goodman says, and the Lexington case may affect similar initiatives in 27 others.
According to Musket faculty adviser Samuel Kafrissen, the student editors rejected the Lexnet message not because they were opposed to it, but because they didn't want the paper to become a ``bulletin board'' for a variety of political groups.
``If they ran that ad, they felt they would be bound to run another, and another, and it would open up a can of worms,'' Mr. Kafrissen says. ``The students never were opposed to the message being presented in another medium.''
But Yeo, who has two children enrolled in Lexington schools, says he is a victim of arbitrary ideological discrimination.
`WHEN we chose the ad, we chose wording that was in compliance with the official school policy,'' Yeo says. ``We didn't think there was anything controversial about it. We wanted it to be a positive message for those students who had chosen abstinence.''
Yeo and the school board have been at odds since the board's 1992 decision to distribute condoms at the high school. Yeo opposes the policy because parental permission is not required, and the packages contain no discussion of abstinence.
Yeo, who insists he is ``a nice guy,'' denies reports aligning him to fundamentalist Christian groups. He says he has been the victim of personal attacks in local newspapers, insulting phone calls, and bumper stickers.
``I'm a guy who's been involved with the schools for a long time,'' Yeo says. ``I'm not just sitting on the sidelines taking pot shots, and I'm not a condom prohibitionist. I just think there are some things going on in the schools that we need to be wary of.''