Schools react to Columbine


Fear of violence leads to increased restrictions on student press





\nStudents everywhere are feeling the ramifications of the April\nshooting at Columbine High School that left 14 students and one\nteacher dead. Schools around the country are tightening security,\nbanning backpacks and clamping down on students' First Amendment\nrights, all in the name of safety.

The American Civil Liberties Union has received hundreds of\ncalls from students around the country concerned that their rights\nare being violated at school. In May, the ACLU of Kansas and Western\nMissouri even went so far as to send a letter to school superintendents\nin the region cautioning them to respect student rights. The Student\nPress Law Center has received a number of Columbine-related censorship\nquestions as well.

Congress has even considered legislation to censor students'\nspeech. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill.,\nsponsored an amendment to the Juvenile Offenders Act of 1999--a\nbill designed to address youth violence--that would provide penalties\nfor the sale to children of any form of media containing violent\nor sexually explicit material.

Hyde's amendment, which did not make it into the version of\nthe bill the House passed, could have sharply curtailed high school\nstudents' First Amendment rights by making it a criminal offense\nfor students to distribute school-sponsored publications, or even\nunderground newspapers, containing violent content to other students.

But schools are not waiting for Congress to tell them what\nto censor: they are punishing students for everything from blue\nhair to essays about bombs. And the student press is not immune.

Vic Walczak, an attorney for the ACLU, said the Columbine attack\nhas made administrators more confident about their authority to\ncensor student speech.

"School officials are feeling very brave and arrogant\nabout their authority to treat students any way they see fit,"\nhe said. "They try to justify everything in the same fashion\nthat prison wardens do--in the name of public safety."

"Ultimately, I think it's very counterproductive because\nstudents need to perceive that they are being treated fairly,"\nWalczak added. "If school officials do not treat students\nfairly, students are going to freak out and do something dangerous."

One week after the Columbine shooting, school officials at\nNordonia Hills High School in Ohio suspended a student for 10\ndays and scheduled an expulsion hearing after a satirical horoscope\ncolumn he wrote was published in the school newspaper.

Mark Guidetti advised Scorpios to "practice your reactions\nto all those college applications that you sent out. We suggest\nstarting by blowing up your house, and then moving on to bigger\nstress-relieving activities, such as assassinating the president\nor wearing hats to school."

Guidetti intended the item as a satirical response to a teacher\nwho confronted him about wearing a hat to school on a school spirit\nday.

Police filed criminal charges against him and Secret Service\nagents investigated the assassination reference. The school dropped\nGuidetti's suspension and canceled the expulsion hearing after\nhe had served three days of his suspension.

Guidetti wrote the column six weeks before the Columbine attack,\nand it was approved by his adviser. He filed a lawsuit against\nthe school for violating his First Amendment free speech rights.

Also in Ohio, 11 students were suspended for contributing to\nan off-campus Web site for the "Goth" subculture. The\nWeb site had been created months before the Columbine shooting,\nbut school Superintendent Timm Mackley defended the punishment,\nsaying the Web site was obscene and had a threatening tone. The\nACLU successfully defended the students, arguing that the students\nwere engaging in protected speech, off campus.

In California--a state that has a law protecting student expression--a\nprincipal ordered a yearbook staff to remove a section from the\nyearbook about students playing paintball.

And in Pennsylvania, a principal took disciplinary action against\nschool officials who monitored the student newspaper after the\nco-editor wrote a column arguing that smokers should be shot.

"Maybe the school should open a section for smokers, or\nmaybe you should all be shot. That's right: Shot!" senior\nJosh Cornfield said in a column that was published nine days after\nthe Columbine shooting.

The principal met with Cornfield to discuss the article but\ndid not take any disciplinary action against him.

Students and advisers everywhere are wondering whether Columbine\nwill have a long-lasting chilling effect on student expression.\nH.L. Hall, the president of the Journalism Education Association,\nsaid he believes the rights of student journalists will continue\nto shrink.

"My guess is we are moving toward fewer rights,"\nhe said. "The attempts to censor students' Web sites is an\nindication of that, and bills on the national level related to\nfiltering [the Internet] are frightening."

Although Hall contended that it is too soon to tell whether\nthe Columbine shooting will have a lasting effect on student press\nrights, he said he has heard about Columbine-related censorship\nfrom advisers.

Hall emphasized the importance of continuing to try to increase\nthe public's support for the student press. He called on professional\npublications to join the battle for student press rights and encouraged\nteachers to learn more about press law. He also stressed the value\nof good reporting.

"I think we need to keep battling for responsible student\njournalism-writing which is accurate and balanced and objective,"\nhe said. "Nothing beats good, solid reporting to gain support."\n


Fall 1999, reports