Students' efforts push district officials to create new free-speech guidelines

Editors initiate repeal of policy giving school administrators 'control over student expression'

IDAHO -- After a recent debate over the role of underground newspapers in the educational process, school officials in Coeur d'Alene enacted a more student-friendly policy for non-school sponsored publications -- but not without a few kinks.   The new policy, approved by the school district's board of trustees in October, expressly denies officials control over the content of independent student publications, but still permits them to limit how and when the publications are distributed and allows administrators to punish students after distribution.

"Students can be punished and materials confiscated if the expression materially and substantially disrupted the educational process," the policy states, "or was pervasively vulgar, harmful or defamatory."   This policy replaces the board's previous publications edict, which gave school officials "control over student expression." That policy made no distinction between school-sponsored and non-school sponsored publications.   Courts have allowed schools to punish students for distributing independent publications that are substantially disruptive and defamatory. But legal support for restrictions on material that is "vulgar" or "harmful" is less clear.   The revamping process in Coeur d'Alene began last year after student editors of an underground publication, Institution-A-Lies, distributed their paper at Coeur d'Alene and Lake City high schools and ran into resistance from Lake City principal John Brumley.   Brumley had no problems with IAL until issue number five, said current editor and Lake City junior Jil Jaeger. In that issue, IAL editors published a "teacher report card" giving a Lake City High School economics teacher an "F." At that, Brumley drew the line, using his district-granted authority over student expression to forbid further distribution of the paper unless it met his approval first.   Brumley would not comment on the new policy or the events that led up to its adoption. He referred all comments to assistant superintendent Judy Drake, the district official responsible for the rewrite.   IAL editors did not submit to prior review. Instead, they made what Drake called a "well-spoken, articulate, reasonable" presentation asking the district trustees to rethink their overbroad restrictions on student expression. Trustees agreed and put Drake to work on the new policy, which Jaeger said reflects the wishes of the students well.

"I am very pleased with the new policy," Jaeger said. "However, I think it was a bit ridiculous that the policy ever had to be adopted in the first place."   Chas Phillips, Jaeger's predecessor and an organizer of the student protest to the trustees, calls the new policy a "step in the right direction" but said he is still worried school officials could use the policy to bar distribution of unofficial publications. Jaeger gave Brumley the benefit of the doubt.

"The thought [of distribution being refused] has crossed my mind, but I believe principal Brumley will be respectful of the policy," she said.   So far, Jaeger's assessment is accurate.  Brumley has allowed IAL to be distributed at lunch -- and the newspaper has been well received by students, Jaeger said.   Asked if the new policy could produce a voluntary chilling of the editor's freedom of expression, Jaeger said, "Not at all. In contrast, it has inspired me to write about anything that is on my mind in hopes of sparking some awareness and controversy among others."

reports, Winter 2000-01