CALIFORNIA — Two brothers, who were suspended twicelast school year for distributing their underground newspaper, have settled outof court. Part of the settlement calls for administrators to receive a lesson infree-speech law. The settlement, approved by Antelope Valley Union HighSchool District trustees last month, also instructs administrators to refrainfrom disciplining students over matters of free speech unless the rights andsafety of other members of the school community are at risk. Meanwhile,Garrett Anderson and his stepbrother, Michael Kinnon, both 17, concede thedistrict had a right to suspend them the first time because of vulgar languageused in earlier newsletters. The second suspension, which was handed down fordistributing two subsequent editions, was expunged from the boys’ permanentrecords after administrators recognized the “cleaned-up” newsletters wereconstitutionally protected.Last spring Antelope Valley administratorsreprimanded Anderson and Kinnon, along with a third boy, for handing outhundreds of their one-page newsletters entitled Mushashi Holiday, whichcontained criticisms of Palmdale High School’s “despicable bathrooms” and “ineptinstructors.” Superintendent Michael Vierra handed the boys three-daysuspensions for a series of what administrators claimed were “profane, libelousand slanderous” publications that “encouraged others to disobey and becomedisorderly.” Vierra told the boys that any future publications wouldhave to be submitted to him for approval 24 hours in advance or they would besuspended again. The school district revised its bylaws to echo the principal’spolicy requiring prior approval of “non-official publication.” It also gaveschool officials the right to exercise prior restraint. Those revisions are nowunder review.The brothers distributed two more newsletters without priorconsent and were subsequently suspended a second time during final exams,forcing Kinnon to miss two examinations. In late June their attorney JamesCharlton filed an appeal with the school district board of trustees, claimingthe students are protected from punishments under California’s Leonard Law. Thelaw prohibits schools from reprimanding students for expression that would beprotected by the First Amendment outside of school.Under the settlement,the school district cannot be sued in the future by the boys; however,administrators must circulate a memorandum among themselves, to review and signin 45 days, that explains state and federal laws governing free-speech rights.The memo further acknowledges that school officials can censor or disciplinestudents if their speech is libelous, obscene or causes disruption.Under the settlement, the school district also must pay the students’$7,525 in attorney fees.”I’m pleased with the settlement agreement andpleased that we brought it to resolution,” said Vierra in a Valley Pressarticle.Charlton applauded Vierra’s acknowledgement that administratorsneed further training in free-speech issues.”We certainly appreciate thedifficult position high school administrators are in post Columbine [and] post9/11,” Charlton said. “It is a tough job not made any easier by the Bill ofRights. That seems especially true when it comes to teaching children what isallowed, or not, outside of home. High school for all too many children is thelast formal instruction they are ever to receive as to the issue of rights andduties and where they intersect. We should not raise a nation of individualsunmindful of their duties.”Anderson and Kinnon, now seniors, have notdistributed another newsletter, although they are permitted to do so, Charltonsaid, as long as it contains constitutionally protected speech.
Read previous coverage
- Dancing around Censorship The Report, Fall 2002