Alternative, independent publications offer students new avenues to express their opinions and exercise their First Amendment rights. Unfortunately, when administrators find out about the underground newspapers, the students who distribute them too often find they are unjustly headed straight to the principal’s office.
This year, three schools have revised distribution policies, providing relief for some of the punished students.
In Michigan, the 5-day suspensions issued to three South Lyon High School students for attempting to distribute their underground newspaper, The First Amendment, were revoked in March as part of a settlement to the students’ lawsuit.
Last spring, Joshua Woodcock, Daniel Woodcock and Daniel Schaefer were suspended for ‘interfering with the operation of a school building,’ although they never passed out the 500 copies of The First Amendment. The publication criticized Principal Larry Jackson for threatening students with criminal charges if they carried out senior pranks.
Under the settlement, the South Lyon Community Schools agreed to pay $32,000 in attorney fees and revise its policy on the distribution of ‘outside materials.’
The policy, which the students’ attorney Andrew Nickelhoff called ‘light years better from what was there before,’ still requires students to submit the materials to an administrator for prior approval. But administrators must show the material is obscene, defamatory or ‘grossly offensive to a reasonable person’ to block its distribution. Students can appeal the principal’s decision to the school district.
Josh Woodcock, now a student at Eastern Michigan University, said he had hoped the district would agree to a policy that did not require prior review. He said the new policy could help, provided all parties follow the rules.
In Minnesota a dispute over the punishment of five eighth-grade girls for their underground magazine resulted in Ogilvie Public Schools adopting a specific policy for the distribution of nonschool-sponsored materials.
The policy includes the restriction of materials that are libelous, obscene or likely to disrupt the ‘orderly operation’ of school, as well as material that is ‘pervasively indecent or vulgar.’ It also says that students must submit materials to the principal for review at least 24 hours before they intend to distribute them.
No policy was in place when the girls were punished for ‘sexual harassment’ over content that appeared in ‘Zine, including a poll of the students’ ‘favorite eighth-grade hottie boy’ and comments critical of two classmates. The girls were given two-week suspensions from the volleyball team and prohibited from participating in opening night of a school play.
Although the district and the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union, which intervened on behalf of the students, said the matter is settled, Cheryl Braddock, a parent of one of the girls, said the families were not notified of the new policy. Braddock also said the girls, two of whom have left the school district due to the incident, were not allowed to challenge their punishments.
Braddock said she hopes the Ogilvie school district will follow its new distribution policy by making the rules clear to students in the student handbook and by posting it in school buildings.
This past winter, administrators in the Antelope Valley Union High School District in California verified in writing that they understand free speech, as part of a settlement with two students who challenged their suspensions for distributing their one-page newsletters. Garett Anderson and his stepbrother Michael Kinnon produced Musashi Holiday, which contained criticism of Palmdale High School’s ‘despicable bathrooms’ and ‘inept instructors.’
District trustees approved the settlement in December. It instructs administrators to refrain from disciplining students over matters of free speech unless the rights and safety of other members of the school community are at risk. The district also agreed to pay the students’ $7,525 in attorney fees.
Meanwhile, Anderson and Kinnon concede the district had a right to suspend them the first time because of the vulgar language used in earlier newsletters. The second suspension was expunged from the boys’ records after administrators recognized the ‘cleaned-up’ newsletters were constitutionally protected.
‘We certainly appreciate the difficult position high school administrators are in post-Columbine,’ said the students’ attorney James Charlton. ‘It is a tough job, not made any easier by the Bill of Rights. … High school for all too many children is the last formal instruction they are ever going to receive as to the issue of rights and duties and where they intersect. We should not raise a nation of individuals unmindful of their duties.’