Teen runs for school board seat after struggling with principal

CALIFORNIA — An 18-year-old lost a bid for a seat on his school board on Nov. 4, but won a censorship battle against his principal last June.

Six hours before a graduation ceremony from which student Joe Neal had been barred, a U.S. district court found that a letter Neal distributed to students which criticized Bassett High School’s principal was “protected political speech” and ordered the school to allow Neal to graduate.

In response to an editorial in the school newspaper by Neal, which criticized the school for cutting down trees, principal Linda Bouman began strictly overseeing the editorial and opinion section of the paper.

“It was such an environment of intimidation,” said Neal.

Hoping to inspire his classmates to resist censorship, Neal distributed a letter encouraging students to speak out against unwelcome changes imposed by the administration.

“Ms. Bouman, how dare you attempt to infringe on the rights of each and every one of us to publish our opinion, an inalienable right by the First Amendment? SILENCE = DEATH, ACTION = LIFE, FORWARD IN THE STRUGGLE,” states one part of the letter.

After Neal distributed the letter, which he had written and copied on his own, he was questioned by Chuck Stanzione, a school police deputy who identified himself to Neal as a “district investigator.”

Stanzione demanded to know Neal’s “intention” and whether or not he had written the letter in collaboration with a teacher.

At their third meeting, Neal said that Stanzione read him his Miranda rights.

Neal said that Stanzione told him, “Free speech and freedom of the press does not exist on this campus.”

“At that point, I wished I hadn’t [distributed the letter],” said Neal who feared being sent to jail.

Neal was not charged with a crime but he was suspended. The suspension took effect seven weeks after the letter was distributed, but only a few weeks before final exams and graduation.

Neal said he was escorted off campus, warned that he would be arrested if he tried to return, and informed that he would probably be expelled.

At a meeting following the suspension, Neal said he was told that his letter created a “threatening situation,” although Bassett officials failed to demonstrate any harms that had resulted from the letter.

School officials did not return phone calls from the Report.

Teachers at Basset High School supported Neal by dressing in red and blue to symbolize the American flag the day after he was suspended.

The San Gabriel Tribune covered the situation and then contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, which provided attorney Peter Lasburg to represent Neal.

Less than six hours before Bassett’s graduation ceremony, Judge James Ideman issued a temporary restraining order to stop the school from enforcing the expulsion.

Neal graduated with his class.

“Given the First Amendment concerns, the draconian effects of the suspension, and the potential for harm that cannot be undone, the issuance of a temporary restraining order is appropriate,” said Judge Ideman in his decision. Riding high on this victory, Neal campaigned for the school board election held on Nov. 4.

Neal was pleased with the election despite his loss.

“We had a great voter turn-out,” said Neal. “Two incumbents lost and the first item on the new board’s agenda will be to try to remove superintendent Linda Gonzalez, who had written a declaration against me.”

Neal is proud that he found the courage to speak out and plans to continue fighting for students’ rights by encouraging them to participate in board meetings and write petitions.

“I want to make students realize that someone does care about them and someone is looking out for them,” said Neal. Neal is still interested in journalism. He is currently attending college and hopes to pursue a career in music.

reports, Winter 1997-98