Oregon underground newspaper editor vows appeal after court upholds punishment

The attorney for a student editor expelled for publishing an underground newspaper vowed to appeal an Aug. 30 state Court of Appeals decision upholding the punishment.

Chris Pangle, then a junior at Mountain View High School in Bend, Ore., was expelled in 1997 after distributing copies of OUTSIDE! to his fellow students. The unauthorized publication included a how-to article that discussed methods of exploding a toilet and taking over the school’s intercom system. It also included a list of teachers’ names, addresses and telephone numbers.

The distribution of OUTSIDE! did not lead directly to any campus disruption, but the court said Pangle “advocated specific methods for causing personal injury, property damage and the disruption of school activities.” As a result, school officials could reasonably predict substantial interference with the academic operation of the school and the rights of its students, the court said.

In the opinion, Judge Walt Edmonds said, “The exercise of appropriate discipline to deter disruptive forces within the school environment is consistent with First Amendment rights as are constitutional limitations on free speech in other environments, such as constraints on yelling ‘Fire!’ in a crowded movie theater.”

But dissenting Judge Rex Armstrong said, “There is no evidence that Chris or anyone else engaged in, or planned or prepared to engage in, any of the suggested conduct the majority quotes.”

Jonathan Hoffman, Pangle’s attorney, said he will appeal the case to the Oregon Supreme Court.

SPLC View: While the student lost this case, the decision nonetheless reaffirms that non-school-sponsored or underground student publications are subject to the more protective Tinker standard. Under that standard, articulated by the Supreme Court in its 1969 decision Tinker v. Des Moines, independent student speech on campus cannot be banned unless it is legally unprotected (e.g., libelous, obscene, etc.) or creates a material and substantial disruption of school activities. While this court’s expansive interpretation of what constitutes such a disruption is troubling, the decision makes clear that the authority of school officials to censor on-campus underground newspapers (and certainly off-campus, private Web sites) is limited.