Miami students rally for free expression

FLORIDA — The Miami-Dade School District, nationally known for its liberal stance on student free expression, toyed with the idea of changing that policy this spring, but was met with stiff resistance from students and faculty members.On June 10, more than 200 students rallied outside the district building in protest of a district-sponsored draft of rules that would give school administrators more power to review student publications and censor controversial material.Several students and media professionals spoke during the school board meeting that night urging the members to uphold student free expression.The rules were drafted in March, a month after nine Killian High School students were arrested for publishing a controversial underground pamphlet called the First Amendment.Although district officials would not deny the proposed policy changes could come before the school board in the future, as a result of the protest and other attention brought to the issue, some board members have publicly announced they intend to keep the expression policy untouched.After the rally, board Chairman Soloman Stinson told reporters he could not speculate how he would vote on the matter if it ever came before the board, but stated, “Right now we have a policy in effect … we have not given direction to change the policy, so it should be apparent that we feel it is sufficient. I support the right of free speech.”This was music to the ears of advisers and student journalists in the district.The massive amount of planning that went into the rally and other responsive actions to the draft rules was well worth the effort, said Brenda Feldman, a newspaper adviser at Coral Gables Senior High School and a defender of the current policy.”If they back off for a while, then we did something good,” Feldman said. “The students were definitely visible. I think it was well worth the effort.”After receiving word of the proposed policy change from an inside source at the school board during the week of May 4, students and advisers began devising strategies and planning actions to take.Feldman happened to be looking through the May 9 issue of the Miami Herald when she came across a front-page feature on a People for the American Way city-wide billboard campaign to inform the public on free speech related rights.In a few minutes, Feldman was talking with Lisa Versaci, the Miami director of the national organization, which advocates for First Amendment rights, about what could be done with the situation in the district.The phone call led to a series of meetings at the organization1s office where students, advisers and Versaci discussed what action they would take. It was in these meetings where it was decided students would take control of organizing the rally and all the preparations leading up to it.”We gave advice on actions to take and what resources we have to offer, but we left all the decisions in the hands of the students,” Versaci said.”I don1t think I’ve ever seen such passion in students. They were very concerned about their rights.”Susan George, last year’s editor in chief of The Panther, Miami Palmetto High School1s student newspaper, said she and other students designed posters, called other high schools, contacted the local media and found students and professional journalists to speak at the rally.”Our goal was to attract as much attention to this issue as possible,” George said. “We think we got the word out.”Miami-Dade School District spokesman, assistant superintendent Henry Fraind, said the situation has been blown out of proportion.”Nothing is going on in the public schools,” he said. “The media reporting on this issue have it all wrong. They are not doing good reporting, rather they are igniting the ire in people.”But last year’s co-editor in chief of the Coral Gables High School student newspaper, Brady Ward, said students had a right to be concerned about free expression in the district because the rules were drafted.”We sent a message that they can1t just change guidelines,” Ward said. “We will fight. No matter what.”