Stamping out free speech


Schools make their mark on student expression by censoring speech officials deem offensive





This fall the Orange & Black staff members had a choice: publish a controversial photo and risk a community backlash or self-censor and save the newspaper from possibly losing editorial control.

In the end, the newspaper staff at Grand Junction High School in Colorado decided to run the photo illustration which depicted two students protesting Colorado’s mandatory Pledge of Allegiance law with a Nazi-style salute.

The photo illustration accompanied a three-page spread about the law, which was a hot topic of conversation among students, said Mark Newton, the newspaper’s adviser. The students were protesting the law because they felt it was fascist.  

Three thousand copies of the newspaper were distributed both on and off campus in October. Backlash against the photo and the newspaper was immediate, Newton said.

The newspaper received complaints from students, teachers and community members who felt the photo was offensive, Newton said.  

Some teachers reportedly refused to distribute the newspaper and even threw copies in the trash. Then the school district announced it would review its student publication policies.

Jeff Kirtland, the district’s spokesman, said after examining the policies the district determined they were sound and consistent with the state statute. The district also determined the Orange & Black properly followed the policies when covering the story.

The Orange & Black staff members were able to maintain their right to free speech, but many of their counterparts across the country this fall were not as fortunate. 

At Hooker High School in Oklahoma, administrators decided to clamp down on “negative” commentary in the school yearbook after a spread in last year’s edition characterized the school’s new paint job as “institutional white,” students say.

Yearbook staff member Sarah Heil said administrators informed the yearbook staff that coverage involving non-school-related activities, news about administrative decisions not involving students and stories about the school budget cuts are prohibited. 

The controversy arose after administrators reviewed the 2002-2003 yearbook, which contained a two-page spread about how the interior school walls were changed from royal blue to white.  The spread showed a before-and-after picture of a wall and used the adjective “institutional white” to describe the new color.

Heil said most students at the school did not like the change in paint color and that the layout reflected the student body’s opinion.  The yearbook is the only student publication at the school.

Although the yearbook staff did not receive written guidelines outlining the topics that can and cannot be covered, the administration told students they plan to review each spread before it is published, said Tabitha Brown, a yearbook staff member.

The students said they plan to stand up for the coverage they believe should be in the yearbook.

Members of the Avonworth High School newspaper in Pennsylvania say administrators created policies this fall that impede the production of the newspaper, an allegation the administration denies.

According to Josh Wilwohl, a layout editor for the Avonews, the problems began when he interviewed Principal Peggy Boden and the superintendent for an editorial outlining how the school board is “educationally, fiscally and emotionally irresponsible.”

A day after the meeting, Wilwohl said Boden informed him that staff members would only be allowed into the publications lab with faculty supervision, making production of the newspaper nearly impossible.

However, Boden said she made the decision to lock the publications facility to protect equipment purchased more than a year ago at a cost of $10,000.  She denies that any of the changes are an attempt to censor the publication.

After students objected to the decision, administrators said they would move some of the equipment into the library or a classroom for easier access. Wilwohl said that moving the equipment would make it difficult to work with other staff members and allows faculty members to keep an eye on what the newspaper is covering.

Wilwohl, along with four other staff members, submitted a letter to the school board in October outlining their complaints, but he said the policy has remained the same.

Rachel Boim, a freshman at Roswell High School in Georgia, was suspended and later expelled for writing a fictional story in her personal journal about a student who dreams of killing a teacher.

Administrators found out about the story after Boim’s art teacher confiscated the journal in October because she passed it to a friend in class.  The teacher kept Boim’s journal overnight and read through its contents.

The story told of an unnamed girl who dreams she shoots and kills an unidentified math teacher.  As the girl is escaping from school, she is shot by a security guard.  Then the school bell rings and the girl wakes up, gathers her books and goes to her next class.

Initially, Boim was suspended for 10 days, but after a closed hearing, a school official decided Boim should be expelled from Roswell High School for the remainder of the year.

Mitzi Edge, a district spokeswoman, said Boim, an honors student, was expelled because she violated the student code of conduct, which prohibits students from making threats against the school. 

In November, the Fulton County school board overturned the expulsion and erased it from her record.  The 10-day suspension she served will remain on her record. 

In Mississippi, a federal court ruled that Oxford Middle School officials could ban Mary August Phillips from displaying her seventh grade student council campaign poster at school.  

A U.S. district court ruled in September that school administrators could prohibit Phillips from hanging a poster that read: “He chose Mary … You should, too.  Mary August for Student Council!”  Pictured between the words “Mary” and “You” was a reproduction of the Renaissance painting “Madonna and Child.” 

According to court documents, the case began after Phillips hung the poster and a teacher complained that she should not “mix religion and politics.”

For three days, the poster was removed and then rehung as school officials received various complaints from Christians and non-Christians who felt the school was allowing the election to blur the division between religion and government or that the school was allowing religion to be ridiculed.  Eventually, the superintendent ordered that the poster be removed.

In denying the preliminary injunction, the court said that because student council elections are school-sponsored speech, the district had the right to determine whether the poster should hang in the school hallway.

One day after the injunction was denied, Phillips was elected to the student council.

In Georgia, two eighth-graders were suspended from Trickum Middle School for allegedly posting racial slurs and threats on their off-campus Web site.

School officials took disciplinary actions in October after investigating complaints from parents about the racial tone of the Web site, said Sloan Roach, spokeswoman for the Gwinnett County Public Schools.

Roach said the Web site was anti-African American and included racial and ethnic slurs as well as threatening language directed toward African Americans.  The site also named students who were going to meet and fight.

The students created and maintained the Web site off-campus, Roach said.  After the students learned they were in trouble, the site was removed.

She said she was unaware if any students had accessed the site from a school computer. However, she said Trickum students were discussing the Web site at school and creating a disruption.

Two other Gwinnett County students and their fathers filed a lawsuit against the school district, claiming school officials violated the students’ First Amendment rights by suspending the students for comments they posted on an off-campus Web site.

The American Civil Liberties Union and two Georgia attorneys filed the lawsuit on behalf of the students and their fathers.

According to the lawsuit filed in U.S. district court in Atlanta, Brookwood High School students Lloyd “L.E.” Goldsmith Jr. and Edward Alexander Morgan were suspended in March after administrators said their comments — posted on another student’s site — threatened a teacher at the school.

The Web site, used by students and others to vent frustrations about the teacher, included “some hypothetical scenarios which visualized some fictional acts,” but “did not contain any direct threats or expressions of any intent to commit any violent acts,” the lawsuit said.

After a student reported the site to a teacher, school officials suspended Goldsmith for more than seven months.  Morgan was suspended for 10 days and required to perform 20 hours of community service.

Administrators said the comments violated the district’s policies, including one that prohibits posting on the Internet “any expression (oral, written, or gesture) which could have the effect of undermining the authority of the school employee.”

Later, after the Goldsmiths hired attorneys, the district said Goldsmith could return to school and required him to perform 40 hours of community service.

The lawsuit asks that the district expunge all references to the students’ discipline and suspensions from their records.  It also seeks undisclosed compensatory and punitive damages.  In addition, the lawsuit asks the court to declare provisions in the Gwinnett County School System student conduct code unconstitutionally vague and overbroad.

In August, the Beaverton School District in Oregon agreed to pay $20,000 to settle a lawsuit filed on behalf of a 13-year-old boy who was expelled for creating an off-campus Web site school administrators deemed offensive.

Carlson Muss, now 16, created the Web site “Sexy (and available) Man” in the fall of 2000 using his home computer.  The Web page named “people I can stand to be around” and commented: “If you made it on this list, Kudos to you, you are not on my shit list, which means you get to live another week.”  

Muss said he did not intend his comments to be taken seriously.

Despite a school psychological evaluation that concluded Muss did not pose a threat to school safety, administrators expelled Muss claiming he violated the district’s policies against “intimidation, threats [and] menacing.”

Muss requested a hearing, but school officials decided to expunge the incident from his records before the hearing convened. Muss claimed that when he later applied for a district magnet academy, his application was rejected because of his Web site. The school district denied the allegation.

Maureen Wheeler, the district spokesperson, said the settlement does not mean the district accepts any liability. 

In Ohio, a Mechanicsburg High School junior stood trial in November for using his home computer to create a link on his personal Web page to a friend’s off-campus Web site, which school administrators and peers later deemed a threat to school safety. The Mechanicsburg student who created the site also stood trial in November. 

The student who linked to the site, Jameson Pack, 16, was charged with six counts of a first degree misdemeanor for aggravated menacing, a fourth degree felony for complicity to menacing by stalking and a first degree misdemeanor for inducing panic. In addition, school administrators suspended him for 10 days and banned him from the school’s computer facilities for two years, said Lisa Pack, Jameson’s mother.

Joshua Allerton, the student who created the site, was charged with six counts of menacing by stalking, a fourth degree felony; six counts of aggravated menacing, a first degree misdemeanor; and inducing panic, also a first degree misdemeanor.

According to the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office incident report, one of the students’ classmates and her mother reported the existence of a Web site entitled, “Melodies of Life” in September.  The site listed the girl and some of her friends under the category “preps.”  

The report claims that the Web site endorsed violent action against the group of girls and encouraged the use of a semi-automatic assault type rifle against them.  The girls are students at Mechanicsburg High School.

CASE: Phillips v. Oxford Separate?Municipal School District, Case No. 2:03CV292-M-A (N.D. Miss. Sept. 22, 2003)


Avonews, Beaverton School District, Colorado, Georgia, Grand Junction High School, Hooker High School, MIssissippi, Oklahoma, Orange & Black, Oregon, Oxford Middle School, Pennsylvania, reports, Roswell High School, Trickum Middle School, Winter 2003-04