Getting down and dirty


Students censored and punished for testing free speech with 'vulgar' work





Sara Lewis said she was outraged when she discovered students at Kirby High School in Tennessee were referring to one another as “pimps” in the yearbook.

“Students are telling me that there are new definitions of the word ‘pimp.’ Well that might be, but they need to print [the new meanings],” said Lewis, who is a member of the Memphis City School Board. “There may be things I do not understand, but I do not think my children would want to be pimps.”

Lewis shares a similar sentiment with administrators at three other schools where vulgar language appeared in student publications this spring. As a result of the material, students at newspapers, yearbooks and underground publications were punished and their work was censored.

Students contend that language that is considered vulgar by adults is socially acceptable among their fellow classmates. They say they should have the right to express it. 

Censoring pimps and porno superlatives  

This spring, more than 60 references to drugs, sex and alcohol filled 12 pages of the yearbook at Kirby High School. 

Copies of The Odyssey were distributed to students before Principal Thomas Killough realized superlatives such as “Most likely to be a pimp; porno producer” were included, Lewis said.

According to Lewis, Odyssey adviser Keith Williams told administrators that he edited text in the yearbook, but his changes were not included in the version submitted to the printer. Students submitted photos and text for the yearbook over the Internet to a Web-based publishing company. 

The school did not receive a hard copy of the yearbook before all the copies were printed. Associate Superintendent Bob Archer said it was the first time the school used the company. 

Principal Killough reviewed the yearbook and crossed out mentions of the Ku Klux Klan, among other objectionable content. New copies of the yearbook were made available to students who returned their uncensored copies, said Archer.

Edmund Sullivan, executive director of the Columbia Scholastic Press Association, said that administrators feel liable for derogatory racial or ethic slurs appearing in student publications. He said censorship is usually not a first preference.

“This is really the one instance where I can understand and sympathize with what [administrators] are trying to achieve,” Sullivan said. “I disagree vehemently with the means they use to remove racially or ethnically hateful speech, but this should not have gotten into the yearbook in the first place.”

Kirby High School is considering whether to form a yearbook committee to look over the content before it is published, Archer said. The committee would include the principal, yearbook staff and one teacher from each academic subject area.

The high school has no publications policy in place; however, in light of recent events, the school board is considering drafting one, Lewis said.

‘Zine takes heat over ‘Eminem fever’

At Upland High School in California administrators confiscated more than 1,500 copies of the student-run literary magazine in June when parents complained about the magazine’s dark content and vulgar language. The school has now instituted prior review, leading to adviser Alan Berman to resign. (See ROAD, page 4.) 

Most of the material in the annual award-winning Tapestry included poetry, prose, plays and two-dimensional artwork about adolescent life. 

Parents were concerned with the submissions by Brian Warmus, who wrote a story from the perspective of a homicidal stalker and a poem about the things he hated. Administrators said his use of  “fuck,” “homos” and “pussy” in his work were a direct violation of the state education code, which they claim allows them to prohibit profanity in the school setting.

One court in California has interpreted the state’s student free-expression law to allow school censorship of “four-letter words.”  The law, however, does not explicitly state that vulgar language can be censored, only material that is “obscene.”

Upland students claim administrators never told them that profanity was a problem in the literary publication, according to Tapestry staff member Jerry Lin. 

Warmus was suspended from school for two days and nearly prevented from participating in graduation proceedings, for what he said was a result of the controversy. He said he was punished after he walked out of class so he could complete his senior English project that was due the next period. Warmus said school officials had ordered him to rewrite part of the project because he wrote about a serial killer. 

Warmus said he did not mean to offend or direct harm at anyone. 

Howard Bloom, author and visiting professor of psychology at New York University referred to Warmus’s work as indicative of “Eminem fever,” but he said that Eminem’s lyrics, like Warmus’s poetry, is harmless.

“There is a fine line between art and the intention to destroy,” he said. “[Administrators] should stand up to parents and explain that art is sometimes shocking.”

The magazine’s layout editor, Kevin Liang, said the content and language included in Tapestry were not meant to incite controversy. He said the magazine reflected the emotions post-Sept. 11, 2001.

“This year’s submissions as a whole seemed to take on a gloomy, dark tone,” he said. “And [the vulgar language] has been an accepted part of our culture. We felt the submissions were a good representation of what the students were going through.”

Stephen Key, general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association, said Upland administrators were wrong in censoring the Tapestry because of the language.

“The [violent] descriptions were a part of the creative process,” Key said. “Now you are censoring the creative message of the person, where the language and descriptions are part of the story.

Columnist suspended for ‘threat’ 

Administrators at Lawrence Central High School in Indiana punished a senior after he hid a vulgar word in his column for the May edition of Cub Reporter student newspaper. 

Drew LaMar used the first letter of every paragraph of his column to spell out a message directed at his adviser, Elizabeth Granger. School officials said the message, “Fuck Granger,” was not protected speech. 

LaMar was suspended and prohibited from participating in his graduation ceremony for what the administrators considered “a threat against the teacher,” according to Dennis LaMar, Drew’s father. However, LaMar said that his son did not intend to harm the teacher but rather was irritated with Granger and played a prank. 

Jane Blystone, a yearbook adviser in Pennsylvania, said students get themselves into trouble when they practice irresponsible journalism. 

“A student publication is for the students and by the students,” Blystone said. “If [students use] it as a forum to slam those in authority, they need to think of the consequences.”

In Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser, the Supreme Court allowed a school to punish a student for using sexually suggestive language during a school-sponsored assembly.

However, Louis Ingelhart, professor emeritus of journalism at Indiana’s Ball State University, said Drew’s hidden message most likely would not constitute a legal obscenity because it was broken up into the first letters of each paragraph.

“Publishing an obscenity is illegal. However, determining whether it is obscene is not something for a school administrator to determine,” said Ingelhart, a former Student Press Law Center board member and an expert on student media law. “You have to go to court to get that determination.”

Senior tradition prompts ridicule

In June, three seniors at Central York High School in Pennsylvania continued their school’s seven-year tradition by publishing an underground yearbook, only to be criticized and threatened by administrators when the school began to receive complaints from parents about the controversial content.

The annual Senior Underground included a compilation of more than 60 seniors’ likes and dislikes, nicknames and things they will and will not miss about Central York. 

The Underground is published independently by students to “fight censorship of student publications,” said Jonathan Wilde, one of three Underground editors.

Administrators cracked down on the students after they received a complaint from a parent, who said he was pulling his daughter out of school because he did not want his child attending a racist institution, said Underground Editor Michael Weagley. 

Weagley, who was also senior class president, said the yearbook included a few racist comments, references to sex and drinking and two photographs of marijuana. Students take full responsibility for their submissions to the Underground,  he said.

Weagley said he was subjected to an unlawful search and seizure when administrators confiscated several issues of the Underground from his bag without his consent. 

Principal Glenn Caufman told the students they could not distribute issues of the Underground at school; however, Weagley said he was not planning to hand out the copies on campus. 

Weagley said that Caufman is trying to stop students from publishing the Underground in the future. The principal sent letters to parents to make them aware of the material their children were submitting to the publication.

Tom Eveslage, professor of communications at Temple University, said the high school’s actions is an example of administrators trying to restrict student speech that they have no authority over. 

Under Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the Supreme Court provided school officials greater authority to censor student work that is school-sponsored. 

But independent student expression is protected by the Court’s 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.In that decision, the Court ruledthat student expression is constitutionally protected unless it creates a material and substantial disruption of school activities or invades the rights of others.

Eveslage, a SPLC board member, said school officials threaten young people to intimidate them into silence. 

“[Administrators] swagger about and wave Hazelwood in everybody’s face and then apply it beyond the scope of school-sponsored expression,” he said.

Weagley has received assistance from the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Legal director Stefan Presser sent a letter to Central York School District Superintendent Linda Estep requesting the district not to intervene with the students’ publication of an “out-of-school journalistic endeavor.” 

Journalism adviser Blystone said she disagrees with students’ use of underground publications to express negative opinions about race or homosexuality.

“Kids were using [the underground yearbook] as a place to promote their own prejudice by making racial slurs,” Blystone said. “[The students] are asking the ACLU to support them when they are not abiding by the principals of the First Amendment. They are being irresponsible and should have been reporting about racial prejudice instead of demonstrating it.”

Weagley and Wilde said they do not endorse the views of students in the yearbook, but they consider the Underground a forum for student expression.

“Whether or not I agree with racism is not the point,” said Wilde. “If somebody wants to say something about how they feel about a subject, then I am not going to take away that right from them.”

Regardless of the avenue of expression, educators continue to stress the importance of maintaining an open line of communication with students. 

If vulgar language is not tolerated in public schools then administrators need to provide alternative outlets for students to express opinions, Eveslage said. He encourages administrators to avoid intolerance because he said it teaches students the wrong lesson.

Leslie Nicholas, newspaper adviser to the Spartan at Wyoming Valley West in Pennsylvania, said censorship only leads to controversy.

“When we start telling people what they can and cannot read it is a dangerous precedent, which we are setting, Nicholas said. “These people are not kids, they are adults. [Whether] it is a literary, art magazine or yearbook, censorship of any student publication is a very slippery slope that we start going down.”


Fall 2003, reports