Underground paper case misses
Journalists ask court to lessen school's penalty for threatening speech
OREGON — A teacher suggested a student should not voice his opinions in school. The student did, and got expelled. Then he sued.
Deschutes County Circuit Court ruled in October that a Mountain View High School junior “stepped over the bounds of constitutional protection” by “advocating direct and disruptive action against the school.”
The court ruled in Pangle v. Bend-LaPine School District, No. 97-CV-0316-AB (Or. Cir. Ct. Deschutes Cty., Oct. 13, 1997), that vulgar language used by the student was constitutionally protected.
Since the court found that the school could legally suspend the student for violating only one of the charges against him, “threatening” speech, Chris Pangle has filed an objection to the court’s decision asking that his punishment be reconsidered.
During the spring of 1997, Pangle and some friends published an underground newspaper, OUTSIDE! that was critical of administrators and teachers in the Bend-La Pine School District.
The idea for OUTSIDE! began during a math class when Pangle and a classmate say they were told by their teacher that they were entitled to their opinion but they could not voice it at Mountain View High School.
The teacher’s comment was in response to Pangle’s questioning the usefulness of learning trigonometry.
Most articles in OUTSIDE! provided social commentary and satire including Mark Twain’s famous quote, “God made the idiot for practice, and then He made the school board.”
Mountain View’s assistant principal, Dave Holmberg, said that some of the teachers felt threatened by an article in the publication that suggested ways for students to seek revenge on teachers such as “blowing up the bathrooms,” sending pornography to their home addresses or polluting the school with “some very disgusting smelling liquid.”
After the publication was distributed, Pangle said he was called to administrative offices and interrogated by Holmberg, principal Ed Tillinghast and dean Joe Dolan.
Pangle believes OUTSIDE’S! articles were taken out of context, not read thoroughly and then blown out of proportion.
“The revenge ideas were intended to be whimsical,” said Pangle. “I think [school officials] were frightened because they took many articles out of context. If they would have sat down and actually read them, they wouldn1t have panicked. One teacher told his class that [OUTSIDE!] showed how to set your teachers on fire. I must have missed that issue….”
Pangle described the administrators as outraged and claims that Tillinghast declared, “I can1t believe this happened in my school.”
Discussing the meeting where these statements were made Pangle said, “When I was in there, they were saying how profane all the articles were, then they were cussing and swearing up a storm. It was the greatest display of hypocrisy.”
Holmberg ordered all copies of OUTSIDE! found on campus to be confiscated said Pangle.
After a second interrogation one week later, Pangle was suspended from school pending a district disciplinary hearing.
The disciplinary hearing recommended expulsion.
Assistant superintendent Allan Frickey accepted this recommendation and found that Pangle’s actions had violated the charge of “Writing and Distribution of an unauthorized publication, the contents of which were profane, threatening to staff, and disruptive to the school.”
U.S. Supreme Court decisions allow student expression to be censored if it proves to be materially disruptive to the school.
In the argument filed in circuit court, Jonathan Hoffman, Pangle’s attorney, argued that OUTSIDE! did not contain threats in a manner that were “unambiguous, unequivocal, and specific.”
Writing must demonstrate these characteristics in order to be considered unprotected threats under the First Amendment, Hoffman argued.
“Nothing in OUTSIDE! threatened to inflict serious physical injury or commit a violent felony to any ‘addressee,’” Hoffman told the court.
No disruptions were shown to have occurred at Mountain View as a result of OUTSIDE!
The court disagreed.
Although OUTSIDE’S! use of vulgar language was found constitutionally protected, the message was not.
In the decision, Judge Alta Brady found, “OUTSIDE! is intended to materially and substantially interfere with the school’s operation. It is not simply an expression of an unpleasant or unpopular viewpoint.”
“None of this was ever supposed to happen,” said Pangle. “[OUTSIDE!] was just supposed to be a poke at the school for many of the things they had done to the students.”
While he awaits the court’s action on his request to reconsider the decision, Pangle is drawing illustrations for Mountain View’s official paper, The Viewpoint, and attending classes under conditions set by the school.
Bend-LaPine School District, Oregon, reports, Winter 1997-98