Principal threatens student with suspension for distributing underground paper at school
Editor says First Amendment protects right to hand out independent publication
OHIO -- "Many of you are probably asking yourselves\nwhy we are doing this. The answer is simple: Because we can,"\nNelsonville-York senior Devin Aeh said in the first issue of her\nunderground newspaper, Lock Down.
"Because this school can take away our backpacks,"\nAeh wrote. "They can take away our chains, our jackets, our\npop, and our dignity. But they can't take away our voices."\n
Or so she thought.
Several days after Aeh distributed Lock Down, Nelsonville-York\nprincipal Tim Flesher called her into his office and told her\nshe would be suspended if she passed out another issue at school.\n
Aeh said she told Flesher that according to the Supreme Court,\nshe had the right to distribute Lock Down at school.
Flesher declined to comment for this story.
Nelsonville-York City School District superintendent Thomas\nGumpf said students in his district do not have the right to distribute\nindependent publications on school property.
"We have board policy and we have a law that states you\ncannot use school material or time or distribute an unauthorized\nstudent publication during school time," Gumpf said.
He said he did not know which law prohibited students from\ndistributing independent publications at school.
According to a copy of the Nelsonville-York City School District's\nstudent publications guidelines that Gumpf faxed to the Student\nPress Law Center, "Students who edit, publish, and/or wish\nto distribute nonschool-sponsored handwritten, printed, or duplicated\nmatter among their fellow students within the schools must assume\nresponsibility for the content of the publication. Students may\nbe restricted has [sic] to the time and place of distribution,\nor may be prohibited from distribution in accordance with administrative\nregulations approved by the Board."
Aeh said she decided to create Lock Down after researching\nstudents' rights and learning that students do have the right\nto distribute independent publications at their schools. The publication\nfeatures poetry, commentaries, art and photocopies of memos from\nthe principal documenting a campaign by Nelsonville-York students\nto be able to drink soda in their classes. Aeh said the publication\nis called Lock Down because it "conveys the frustrated,\ntrapped feeling of being in high school."
"[Lock Down] is a way for kids to be able to express\ntheir opinions," she said. "Nobody wants to listen to\nthem. Nobody cares what the kids have to say. I just thought it\nwould be a good idea to give them a place where they can say,\n'Hey, this is what I think,' and I didn't think that there would\nbe any way that we'd get in trouble for it."
Aeh said students loved the first issue of Lock Down so\nmuch that they gave her more than $120 in donations, enabling\nher to print 170 copies of the second issue -- three times the\npress run of the first.
But Gumpf said he told Aeh he would not allow her to hand out\na publication similar to the one she distributed the first time\nat school. He called the first issue of Lock Down "offensive"\nand "inappropriate."
"The community responded very negatively to it,"\nGumpf said. "It disrupted the education process."
Gumpf said Lock Down disrupted the educational process\nby causing absenteeism among students.
"Ninety children, or 20 percent of my high school and\n248 or 33 percent of my elementary [were absent]," he said.\n"Parents pulled their kids out of school."
According to Gumpf, parents at an October school board meeting\nsaid they kept their children home from school because of Lock\nDown.
But Aeh said the high absenteeism among students occurred a\nweek after she distributed Lock Down at school, and that\nit was due to a rumor of impending violence at a pep rally being\nheld that day, not her publication.
Aeh said she spoke to several parents at the school board meeting\nwho had kept their children home from school, and none said they\nhad read Lock Down.
An attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio\nwrote a letter to Flesher in November demanding that Aeh be allowed\nto distribute Lock Down at school. If Flesher continues to prevent\nAeh from distributing her publication, the ACLU plans to initiate\nlegal action against the school.
Aeh said the second issue of Lock Down is ready to be\ndistributed, but she is following the ACLU's advice and waiting\nuntil the threat of suspension has been removed to hand them out.\n
But if she has to, Aeh said she will risk being suspended and\nlosing her chance of becoming valedictorian of her class.
"The bigger picture here is what counts," Aeh said.\n"And the bigger picture is students having the rights that\nthe Constitution says they can have. And that matters more than\nmy grade point average because I know I can go on if it drops.\nI can still succeed"
reports, Winter 1999-2000