Students lose battle to distribute alternative press
WISCONSIN — Students in Milwaukee suffered a blow in their censorship battle with high school administrators when a state court ruled in favor of the school’s decision to censor the students’ underground publication. The students have appealed the decision to the state court of appeals.
The ruling came in the form of a summary judgment decision against six Nicolet High School students who were suspended by their principal after they distributed the non school-sponsored underground newspaper Ricochet in January of 1995.
In the August decision, Wisconsin State Circuit Court Judge Raymond Gieringer said that time, place, and manner restrictions placed on the newspaper by school administrators were valid under federal and state constitutions. He also said that regulations developed by the school’s principal, Dr. Elliot Moeser, before the first issue of Ricochet came out, regulations designed to restrict certain kinds of speech distributed by students, were in fact constitutional.
Part of the school guidelines placed limits on the types of materials students were able to distribute. One section read “Students shall not distribute written material which: is obscene, pornographic, lewd, contains indecent or vulgar language, or advocates or encourages illegal behavior, including but not limited to the use of products illegal for use by minors….”
The regulations also required 24 hours notice before any written materials could be distributed, and a disclaimer on each paper telling readers the school did not endorse the paper.
School officials argued in briefs filed with the court that the content of Ricochet was not the issue. They said the school guidelines, which required any and all student-sponsored printed materials, including underground newspapers, to be distributed after school and at school exits, were established to maintain order in the school and prevent the disruption of classes.
But the students had a different view. Represented by attorney Patricia Meunier, the students argued that the regulations were in fact content-based, because they were drawn up in an effort to prevent a reoccurrence of what happened at Nicolet several years ago. In that case, another underground newspaper was blamed for disrupting the school environment when articles in the paper Gathering No Moss embarrasses students. Because the new rules drawn up by Moeser and the school district’s legal counsel were created with the content of Gathering No Moss in mind, the students argued, the rules were content-based and as such should be subject to a high standard of scrutiny to ensure they did not violate the First Amendment.
The court disagreed with the students, saying the school should “strive to maintain an atmosphere conducive to learning for all students in attendance.” Judge Gieringer went on to say that “school officials must have the authority to prescribe and control the conduct of students while in school.”
Meunier said the students have appealed the decision to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals.
reports, Winter 1996-97