Underground editor succeeds in battle

ARIZONA — The editor of an alternative high school newspaper was given permission to distribute his publication on campus following a well-publicized dispute with school officials in which approximately 500 papers were confiscated.

Ben Powers, a senior at Central High School in Phoenix and the editor of The Central Voice, was originally told he could not distribute copies of the Voice on campus by administrators. Frustrated by their response, Powers sought help from the Student Press Law Center, and disclosed his story to The Arizona Republic, as well as several other media outlets in the area.

The Republic ran Powers’ story on the front page Dec. 3, and two months after the controversy started, the school and Powers came to an agreement on where Powers could distribute the papers on campus.

“As long as I have the means and money, I’ll publish the newspaper,” Powers told The Republic. “It’s something I love to do. It’s been a major part of me for the last year and a half.”

Powers first issue came out in October, when school officials took 300 copies of the 1,000 circulation. After the second edition came out Nov. 30, officials confiscated 200 of that run – even though Powers gave it away off campus near the school’s parking lot.

An attorney for the Phoenix Union High School District told The Republic that officials confiscated the paper because it defamed “employees who have devoted their professional lives to education,” and that Powers had no right to circulate the paper on campus.

A district spokesman also told The Republic the school does not allow non-student publications on campus, and a school attorney added that the publication interfered with traffic flow on campus and created a safety concern.

The first issue of the Voice included a column written by Powers that accused school officials of censorship. It also contained various photos – including a front page football shot and several pictures of various students as a part of a section entitled “Student Life.”

According to The Republic, following the theft of the first issue, the embattled editor received the assistance of more than 20 teachers and students, who paid $175 for an advertisement in the second edition declaring their support for free speech.

Powers told The Republic that the school made too much of the situation.

“If they had just let it alone, then it wouldn’t be this big of a deal,” the 17-year-old said. “Now there are lawyers involved, the school is involved and all I wanted to do was publish a newspaper.”

In a letter dated Nov. 11, which was before the distribution of the second issue, Robert Haws, an attorney for the district, told Powers he could not distribute the paper on campus without administration approval.

Powers decided to contact the SPLC, and the Center referred him to Daniel Barr, an attorney in Phoenix who specializes in First Amendment issues. Barr argued that school official’s claims that the paper defamed school officials was “without merit,” and that the school’s practice of prior review of an independent student paper was unconstitutional.

According to The Republic, school officials decided to return the confiscated copies to Powers, but grappled with where and how Powers could distribute the paper. In early December, administrators decided to let Powers distribute on at least two parts of campus.

“Yes, I am happy about the decision,” Powers told The Republic. “But I wasn’t happy with the fact that it took this long to reach the same decision that could have been made two months ago.”