A Brief History of Gambino v. The Fairfax County Board of Education

In 1974, The Farm News ran a story by B.J. Matson about sexually transmitted diseases. Stewart Hill, the sponsor, was called down for a conference with Hayfield Principal Doris Torrice. They agreed that if any other controversial articles were going to appear in the paper, she would be notified so she would be prepared to handle any parental concerns.

In the 1976-77 school year, the Fairfax County School Board was considering creating an optional sex ed program which students had to get their parents' permission to attend. It banned any information or discussion of homosexuality, abortion, masturbation or birth control. The December 3, 1976 Washington Star article included here gives a thorough description of the many restrictions.

Conservatives at the time were concerned that sex ed would promote teenage sexual activity; others had religious objections.

The Farm News had written stories and an editorial about this program a number of times. As a follow-up, editor Lauren Boyd decided to interview girls who were sexually active as to whether they used birth control. She included a list of possible birth control methods at the end of the article.

This was the last article to be completed for the December 1, 1976 issue. The paper was at the print shop waiting to be finished. Under the agreement he had with Mrs. Torrice, the sponsor felt that he should notify her about the article.

She decided it could not be published because of the school board's ban on any discussion of birth control.

She offered to let Boyd publish if she would rewrite the article and delete the section on contraceptive methods. Boyd refused.

The newspaper then had a practical issue. There was a large space on the front page and nothing to fill it with. So as a commentary on the censorship of the article and to move forward with publication, the newspaper was printed with just the headline on the front page and a blank space where the article would have been. The same was done with the continuation on the inside page.

The owner of the Springfield print shop had a daughter who worked for the Washington Post. She notified her daughter what was going on and the Post wrote about it on the front page of the local news section.

It was a slow news time, between the election of Jimmy Carter in November and the new administration taking over. A story involving sex, teenage girls and censorship proved irresistible to the local newspapers and TV news. It was even covered far beyond the Washington area.

The blank space on the front page of The Farm News proved to be an accidental public relations success. Pictures of the front page with a blank space gave newspapers and TV news a visual to illustrate their stories.

The December 22, 1976 issue of The Farm News contains an excellent summary of the hearings before the Superintendent's Advisory Board on Student Expression and the School Board, both of which supported the ban.

Around this time, the Student Press Law Center offered their assistance, providing a free lawyer. Assistant editor Gina Gambino's father provided $600 in financial assistance to help with expenses for the Law Center. Lauren Boyd's father sharply disagreed with what his daughter was doing and wrote a letter to the Washington Star publicly stating his disapproval.

Lauren Boyd and Gina Gambino sued Fairfax County Schools in Federal District Court. The case was heard on February 15, 1977 before Judge Albert V. Bryan. There was no testimony, and the case went directly to closing arguments. Bryan seemed skeptical about the FCPS position.

Staff members had created a large scrapbook of articles, which was submitted to the court to prove that the paper was a forum for student expression, a crucial issue in the case.

On February 24, Bryan found in favor of The Farm News, writing that the article was protected under the First Amendment. However, the paper had to wait to publish until the School Board decided whether to the appeal the verdict. They voted to appeal on March 10.

The Federal Appeals Court did not hear the appeal until June 10 and their 2-1 decision in favor of the newspaper was not delivered until October 18, 1977. Once the School Board decided not to appeal to the Supreme Court, the paper published the article in the November 14 issue. Lauren Boyd and Gina Gambino had graduated the previous June.

The Appeals Court ruling became the law for student newspapers in Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Of course, it was still possible for principals to get around the law by firing sponsors who tried to enforce it and hiring sponsors who would not let controversial articles be published.

It should be noted that Doris Torrice was not one of these. She treated both the sponsor and the students involved with fairness and respect. She even drove Lauren Boyd to several of the hearings. She was a fine principal.

On January 13, 1988, the Supreme Court decided a case from St. Louis in which they overruled the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, and ruled 5-3 that students did not have First Amendment rights to free expression in a student newspaper. Hazelwood v Kuhlmeier supplanted the Hayfield case after 11 years.

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