Alternative publications open doors for student expression, but administrators are not always supportive
Fad? Hazelwood-inspired rebellion? Or just searching for a voice? High school students offer many reasons why they produce underground newspapers. Whatever their reasons, most still find themselves getting punished.
In five underground newspaper incidents reported to the Student Press Law Center this spring, the students responsible were caught and then sentenced to different punishments. But in a different twist, most of these students knew their First Amendment rights, fought back and won.
In Reno, Nev., Pat Lee, a student at McQueen High School, was suspended for 10 days in December and was almost transferred to another school after distributing the second edition of his publication. He was accused of using language that was profane and threatening a school employee in his paper Kuhnspeeruhsee (pronounced “conspiracy”).
After meeting with the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, the Washoe County School District agreed to withdraw its request to have Lee transferred to another high school. Lee agreed to submit a retraction and apology to the official student newspaper, but did not admit his guilt for the charges made against him. The school has not prohibited Lee from publishing the underground paper.
“We are pleased to have been able to work this out with the school district,” said ACLU cooperating attorney Patrick Gilbert. “The agreement probably saved the town a lot of money. And, Pat Lee gets to go back to McQueen High with his First Amendment rights.”
Jason Hopkins, a student at Jacobs High School in Algonquin, Ill., was suspended in January along with three others for distributing an underground on school grounds without permission.
The school also called in the police to “scare” Hopkins into telling school officials who else was involved in the production of the paper. The officer threatened to arrest him if he did not reveal the others, Hopkins said.
Hopkins, one of the editors who began the paper, Not the Talon, said they started their own paper after the official school paper printed a student’s wish to “get rid of all the freaks.” He felt like they were targeting him and his friends so he decided to respond through his own newspaper. “We did it because we wanted to express our opinions,” Hopkins said.
“We felt the Talon did not express our views,” Hopkins said.
The principal threatened Hopkins, who had never been in trouble at school before, with expulsion if he distributed another paper, Hopkins said. He has since tamed the paper a little and has produced several more issues. He is backed by an attorney who will file suit if the school tries to expel him, he says.
In Columbia, Mo., a 15-year-old high school student was suspended in January after distributing an underground newspaper, The Red and Black, that allegedly contained racist, anti-Semitic diatribe.
Abe Haim, a student at Hickman High School, is backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri. They are investigating whether his First Amendment rights were violated and if the school illegally searched him and pressured him to tell who else was involved.
Haim paid for and printed his paper off of school grounds and also distributed it away from the school. He started his paper because he felt as though his views would not be printed in the school paper.
“The American Civil Liberties Union is seeking three things: First, remedy what he lost academically, for example let him take his exams,” says John Coffman, the president of Mid-Missouri ACLU. “Secondly, an apology or statement saying [school officials] could have handled situation better, and third, create an open dialogue about racial issues. Let students know it is better to have open discussion than censorship.” Presently, Coffman is trying to settle the issue peacefully. At the request of Haim’s parents, Coffman is writing the administrators and school superintendent to see if they will settle. “I’m trying to exhaust every remedy before going to court,” Coffman said.
In Port St. Lucie, Fla., six students were punished for publishing a 10-page magazine, Wedge, which comments on the St. Lucie County school system.
Ryan DeCosimo, the editor and a student at Port St. Lucie High School, was suspended twice after each edition came out. The stapled pages of the magazine were distributed on campus, charging students any coin for a copy. The school claimed they violated school rules that prohibit distribution of non-authorized publications on campus.
DeCosimo contacted the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee to see what his right were. The ACLU said the school may have over-extended their boundaries.
“The student’s suspension is highly questionable and there are probably very strong grounds for a challenge,” said Andrew Kayton, legal director for the ACLU.
Kayton believes “that these students had a creative idea and they saw it as a way to make money. Sometimes students like doing something that is underground because they feel like they are doing something wrong. Under Hazelwood they can’t express themselves freely in official school publications. This way they can.”
DeCosimo vows to keep writing and to produce another issue.
A school in Glendale, Wis., has created rules that make it difficult for students to distribute their underground publication.
A junior and five sophomores were suspended from Nicolet High School for distributing an underground paper they had published. Elliot Moeser, the school’s top administrator, said the content of the publication was not the issue. School guidelines say students may distribute only non-school-sponsored materials after school ends and then only at two of the several exits to the building.
In November when an earlier issue of the Ricochet was distributed, the students followed the school guidelines. With a later issue they violated the rules when they distributed before school started.
The editors said Ricochet was formed because some students thought the school was not covering issues they thought were important, said Peter Koneazny, an attorney for the ACLU of Wisconsin.
At Allegan High School three students decided to publish an underground newspaper primarily because their school did not a have a school newspaper at all.
“The principal objected to the paper at first and said it didn’t belong at the school because it contained obscene words and littered the school,” said Emily Kroes, an editor of Fonetikali.
Now the principal has started a prior review policy and the staff must show the paper to the principal before it can be distributed.
To put an end to the underground, the school formed an official school paper. Kroes says it is more of a literary magazine that was incorporated into the yearbook class. “It’s really dumb,” Kroes said. “We will still produce our paper as long as we can.”
At least one school decided no punishment would be issued and the administration would be reasonable in discussing an underground paper with students.
At Greenville High School in Michigan, administrators voiced concerns when the underground newspaper, Counter Culture, included profanity and criticized one specific teacher and school officials in general.
Principal Harold Deines said he objected that the underground was distributed by being stuffed into students’ lockers, denying them the choice of whether to pick up the paper.
“For the most part, when we did discuss the situation, [the students] were reasonable,” Deines said. “I’ll have to give them credit for that. I did not agree with their style, but we were able to sit down and discuss the situation as adults. At this point we are only handling the [issue of] distribution and availability to students,” said Deines.
No disciplinary action has been taken against the students. That could change if they violate the agreement about distribution, Superintendent Tom Pridgeon said.
reports, Spring 1996