Students’ efforts push district officials to create new free-speech guidelines

IDAHO — After a recent debate over the role of underground newspapersin the educational process, school officials in Coeur d’Alene enacted amore student-friendly policy for non-school sponsored publications — butnot without a few kinks. The new policy, approved by the school district’s board of trusteesin October, expressly denies officials control over the content of independentstudent publications, but still permits them to limit how and when thepublications are distributed and allows administrators to punish studentsafter distribution.

“Students can be punished and materials confiscated if the expressionmaterially and substantially disrupted the educational process,” the policystates, “or was pervasively vulgar, harmful or defamatory.” This policy replaces the board’s previous publications edict, whichgave school officials “control over student expression.” That policy madeno distinction between school-sponsored and non-school sponsored publications. Courts have allowed schools to punish students for distributing independentpublications that are substantially disruptive and defamatory. But legalsupport for restrictions on material that is “vulgar” or “harmful” is lessclear. The revamping process in Coeur d’Alene began last year after studenteditors of an underground publication, Institution-A-Lies, distributedtheir paper at Coeur d’Alene and Lake City high schools and ran into resistancefrom Lake City principal John Brumley. Brumley had no problems with IAL until issue number five, saidcurrent editor and Lake City junior Jil Jaeger. In that issue, IALeditors published a “teacher report card” giving a Lake City High Schooleconomics teacher an “F.” At that, Brumley drew the line, using his district-grantedauthority over student expression to forbid further distribution of thepaper unless it met his approval first. Brumley would not comment on the new policy or the events that ledup to its adoption. He referred all comments to assistant superintendentJudy Drake, the district official responsible for the rewrite. IAL editors did not submit to prior review. Instead, they madewhat Drake called a “well-spoken, articulate, reasonable” presentationasking the district trustees to rethink their overbroad restrictions onstudent expression. Trustees agreed and put Drake to work on the new policy,which Jaeger said reflects the wishes of the students well.

“I am very pleased with the new policy,” Jaeger said. “However, I thinkit was a bit ridiculous that the policy ever had to be adopted in the firstplace.” Chas Phillips, Jaeger’s predecessor and an organizer of the studentprotest to the trustees, calls the new policy a “step in the right direction”but said he is still worried school officials could use the policy to bardistribution of unofficial publications. Jaeger gave Brumley the benefitof the doubt.

“The thought [of distribution being refused] has crossed my mind, butI believe principal Brumley will be respectful of the policy,” she said. So far, Jaeger’s assessment is accurate.  Brumley has allowedIAL to be distributed at lunch — and the newspaper has been wellreceived by students, Jaeger said. Asked if the new policy could produce a voluntary chilling of the editor’sfreedom of expression, Jaeger said, “Not at all. In contrast, it has inspiredme to write about anything that is on my mind in hopes of sparking someawareness and controversy among others.”