Students hand out underground paper off campus after school administrators threaten suspension

Editors distribute copies of publication across the street from Nelsonville-York High

OHIO -- Four months after they were threatened with suspension for handing out an underground newspaper, the editors of Lockdown finally distributed a sequel to their controversial first issue -- across the street from their high school.

Devin Aeh, the editor of Lockdown, had been trying for months to win the right to hand out her publication at Nelsonville-York High School but decided in February to distribute it across the street from the school to avoid a possible suspension.

"I guess I'm glad that we were just getting to pass it out at all," Aeh said. "That's the point. It doesn't really matter that it's not in school."

Aeh said she decided not to hand out the publication at school after attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio advised her against it.

Ray Vasvari, the director of the ACLU of Ohio, said that although he believes students do have the right to hand out independent publications on campus, he was not sure that a court would rule in Aeh's favor.

Aeh asked the ACLU of Ohio for legal help in October after the principal of Nelsonville-York High School told her she would be suspended if she distributed another issue of Lockdown at school. The district superintendent supported the principal and called the first issue of Lockdown, which contained student-authored poetry and commentaries on school policies, "offensive" and "inappropriate."

Ultimately, Aeh decided to hand out the second issue of Lockdown across the street from the school. The publisher of a local newspaper came to show support for the students, and the distribution was covered by the local media.

Aeh said distributing Lockdown across the street was just as effective as handing it out on school property. She said school bus drivers, teachers and even a UPS driver stopped by to ask for copies of the publication. She said she plans to publish future issues of Lockdown and will continue to hand them out off campus.

Vasvari said he was encouraged by the town's support for Aeh because it reflected the community's belief in the free-expression rights of students.

"Here's the publisher of the local newspaper coming to a suburb on a morning in February to watch a high school senior pass out her student newspaper, and that's tremendous to me," Vasvari said. "There was strong editorial support for [Aeh] in the local newspapers, and that shows that the message percolated through the community. "

Vasvari said Aeh's struggle may have made people more aware of the lack of rights many students have at school.

"Maybe," he said, "in a way they never intended, these school officials ended up doing some good."

reports, Spring 2000