Anti-Bush humor column leads to confiscation of Texas high school newspaper following Sept. 11 attacks

A Texas high school principal yanked every copy of the school newspaper off the shelves, and then publicly said he was “embarrassed” by the student editor — all in an apparent reaction to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

Lane Haygood, editor of the Round Up of Andrews High School, wrote two stories in the Sept. 10 issue that drew principal Mike Rhodes’ ire. One was a humor column criticizing President George W. Bush’s domestic policy prior to the terrorist attacks, and the other was a staff editorial that denounced a government plan to store nuclear waste in the areas surrounding Andrews. Even though the articles were written four weeks prior to the terrorist attacks on the United States, the newspapers did not hit the stands until the morning of Sept. 11.

What resulted was a case of bad timing that has left a bitter taste in Haygood’s mouth.

After receiving complaints from the community expressing outrage about the articles, Rhodes pulled all the copies of the newspapers off the shelves. Haygood said approximately 1,000 copies of the newspaper were recalled — issues that cost between $1,500-$2,000 to produce.

“It is with humility and embarrassment that I would like to apologize for the two Opinion Articles in the AHS Roundup,” Rhodes said in a letter to the editor published in the local commercial newspaper, Andrews County News, on Sept. 14. He went on to “apologize for the irresponsible use” of the school newspaper.

Haygood maintained that the purpose of his column was “political humor — not incitement.” “Education should be about teaching kids to think and form their own opinions,” Haygood said. “Maybe it’s time we stopped repressing student ideas because they are unpopular.”

SPLC VIEW: History tells us that freedom of press and speech are often among the first casualties in times of national crisis. Regrettably, in the first month after the attack on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, we’ve witnessed history repeat itself as student journalists and teachers have been among the first groups targeted for expressing ideas or sentiments that some find unpopular. The events of Sept. 11 have already forced Americans to reevaluate the balance between some of our core civil liberties and issues of personal safety and national security. Further “balancing” — which will undoubtedly involve much more give than take in terms of individual rights — is likely to follow for the foreseeable future.

While current events may warrant some adjustments to speech, for example in reporting on troop movements or providing immediate information about covert intelligence operations, knee-jerk attempts to silence core speech — such as an opinion piece critical of presidential policy, as occurred in this case, or other general comments that cut against the tide of popular sentiment, such as occurred in the two stories that follow – must be clearly and loudly denounced no matter the circumstances.

The Washington Post recently reported that specially equipped U.S. military planes are now circling over Afghanistan broadcasting information to the country’s citizens and Taliban soldiers that announces, among other things, that the coalition’s military efforts are not directed against Islam or the Muslim community, but rather simply at those who harbor known terrorists. Unfortunately, the military says that their message is being heard by very few. The problem: as part of their effort to control the Afghan people, the Taliban confiscated nearly every radio and television in the country, in addition to closing newspapers, theaters and all other outlets of free expression.

Our freedoms are our strength. They are at the heart of what separates us from those we now condemn. If we tolerate their sacrifice, the terrorists will have landed yet another devastating blow.