Heading Underground


Some student journalists find that creating an independent publication is the only way to fight administrative censorship





When high school administrators censor a school's official student newspaper, the student journalists targeted by that decision generally weigh a short list of options: submitting to the censorship, seeking public support against it or taking legal action against the school.

Student journalists, in the face of censorship, typically choose one or a combination of these paths, though a road less traveled exists: moving the paper underground.

This option, though not an absolute shield from administrative censorship, can provide students more freedom.

'For students it's advantageous to do an independent newspaper because the administration is subject to a higher standard in order to regulate the content of that speech,' said Jennifer Peterson, a Madison, Wisc., attorney who deals with First Amendment issues.

'[Administrators] can impose reasonable time, place and manner regulations, even on an independent student newspaper, but in order to start controlling conduct they have to be able to demonstrate that the material would substantially interfere with the appropriate discipline and operation of the school,' Peterson said.

After the editor in chief of the student newspaper at Wisconsin's Monona Grove High School became unhappy with the principal's censorship of the publication, she went the underground route, creating an independent newspaper to publish the content not allowed in the official paper.

Julia Steege served as the editor in chief of the Eagle Post during the 2004-2005 school year but began feeling frustrated at the principal's restrictions on the paper. The principal prevented the publication of the paper's most controversial articles, dealing with topics like homosexual rights and sex education, which she believed to be some of the paper's best. After meeting with Thy Vo, an Eagle Post reporter responsible for much of the paper's controversial material, the two founded The Veridicus Times, the alternative student newspaper, Steege said.

'We talked about what we wanted it to be for, because we had to be really careful with how controversial we wanted to make it,' Steege said.

They did not want the content to turn people off by being overly controversial but they wanted The Veridicus Times to tell the stories that were not reaching the students at Monona Grove, she explained.

The content of the first issue included an article about students battling anorexia, an article on gay students coming out at school, an editorial written by the librarian on her favorite banned book and opinion pieces critical of censorship, she said.

Steege, realizing The Veridicus Times would be viewed as another target for censorship, spoke with a lawyer before attempting to distribute the issues at school, she said.

Her foresight was correct. The school district approved Steege's request to distribute the paper but under the condition that each issue be submitted to the principal seven days beforehand to receive his approval. The students responded with a letter saying they would provide the principal with a copy of the paper a day before its distribution. Under the advisement of their lawyer, they also provided him with a few of the articles seven days prior to the day of distribution as samples of the paper's content and made it clear they would not do so again.

'We thought having to submit the paper in its entirety seven days prior to passing out would invite undue censorship and limit our freedom of speech,' Steege said.

The federal appeals court with jurisdiction over Wisconsin ruled in 1972 that school officials could not require prior approval of independent student publications.

The principal threatened the students with disciplinary action for refusing to cooperate with him but they passed out the first issue in April without consequence. Steege refutes the principal's claim that she did not cooperate with him.

'I went out of my way to communicate with him in ways I did not have to,' she said.

They announced the paper's release to students during lunch hours, as the school only allowed them to advertise by word of mouth, and friends helped generate interest in the paper. When they distributed the papers at school they encountered no additional censorship attempts.

'[The principal] wasn't anywhere to be seen,' she said.

Like The Veridicus Times, the student newspaper at Ithaca High School in New York began printing independently in 2005 after facing censorship from the school's principal. Unlike the Times, which provided an alternative voice and printed content not found in the Eagle Post, the staff of The Tattler changed the publication name and the location of its office in order to cut ties with the school, but remained the same paper in terms of content.

The school's principal, Joe Wilson, imposed guidelines on the newspaper in January that the staff members considered violations of their First Amendment rights.

Among the new guidelines was the rule that The Tattler could not publish without an adviser, so when the staff's adviser resigned in February following continued conflict between the paper and the administration, the paper found itself with few ways to continue printing until a new adviser was named.

Robert Ochshorn, the editor in chief of the paper during the introduction of the guidelines, said he and the staff published three issues of the newspaper without The Tattler name in order to avoid falling under the jurisdiction of Wilson's guidelines. But the underground versions of the paper ' printed from March through May under the titles The March Issue, The April Issue and The May Issue ' still required approval from the district.

'It's sort of paradoxical in our current situation because with The Tattler, under current guidelines, we can be censored by an adviser, but there is no prior review of our paper by the administration,' he said. 'Whereas with an underground paper, and all non-official school publications, they must have the direct approval of the superintendent.'

Administrators prevented The March Issue, self-described as 'Ithaca High School's Independent Newspaper,' from being distributed on campus. The district refused the students permission to distribute an independent paper, saying it would interfere with classes. However, courts around the country have ruled that students have the right to distribute independent publications at school during the school day.

Despite administrators keeping the publication outside of the school, The March Issue and its following issues were still successful, Ochshorn said. The issues were distributed off school grounds.

'With an independent publication, even though we may have to stand outside, off school grounds, at least it exists in its entirety,' he explained. 'There was incredible readership and interest in the paper partially because it was an indie publication.'

The interest in independent publications that Ochshorn said paved the way for high readership of his publication, despite not being distributed on campus, is sometimes attributed to the fact that these newspapers provide a point of view not found in the official paper ' as was the philosophy behind The Right Way, a conservative publication at East Lansing High School in Michigan.

Tyler Whitney said he founded The Right Way because he felt the school's official student newspaper, which he described as 'horribly liberal,' did not give a voice to conservatives at the school.

'I thought I could change some minds because a lot of people don't really know if they're conservative or not, so they kind of go with the general social trend,' he said, adding he thought his paper could 'shed light on the lunacy of liberalism.'

After printing the first issue of his paper in March, Whitney arrived at school and began handing copies out to students in the hallways. Soon after, a teacher stopped him and told him he could not pass out the paper because it was not an official school publication, he said. He appealed to the superintendent, hoping for relief, but was again told he could not hand his publication out at school, he added.

'They said that we would have to form an official club with at least 20 members and a bunch of bureaucratic nonsense,' Whitney explained.

Believing the real reason the school censored his paper was its ideology, Whitney found help in College Republicans at nearby Michigan State University, as well as at the county and the state level, who called the school urging them to allow him to distribute The Right Way, he said.

The school allowed The Right Way to be distributed, but still placed restrictions on the paper, Whitney said. The administrators do not allow him to print advertisements from school organizations, including organizations like the Teenage Republicans, he explained, and they prohibited The Right Way from featuring articles written by anyone but East Lansing students ' the first issue had articles from Michigan State University College Republicans.

Although he called the administration's decision to allow distribution of the paper a victory, Whitney plans to fight to allow non-East Lansing High students to contribute articles.

'I know I should be able to [print contributions from writers outside of East Lansing High] under the First Amendment, but it's kind of a hard battle to fight,' he said.

Whitney envisioned The Right Way publishing once a month, but said funding dictates the paper's frequency. The paper is funded by donations from supporters as well as through advertising but was initially started with a grant from the Leadership Institute, an organization whose mission is 'to identify, recruit, train, and place conservatives in politics, government, and media,' according to its Web site.

Funding is one of the first walls students must climb when starting an independent high school publication. For those students without the benefit of a grant, finding funds to begin the publication might require a grassroots effort.

For The Veridicus Times, the start-up funds came from the pockets of its founders as well as a coffee shop benefit concert organized by a math teacher who Steege referred to as a mentor, Maury Smith. Smith had been a mentor-figure to the students prior to their decision to publish an alternative publication. When they complained to him about their frustration with censorship, he told them to do something about it, Steege said. Although Smith did not work as an adviser to the Times, Steege said his support, from the benefit concert he organized to the encouragement he provided, pushed them to complete the paper.

'Someone to believe in you is a big confidence boost, especially when things are frustrating or hard,' Steege explained.

Steege and Vo also cut down on costs by employing a publishing class at another nearby high school to print the paper.

The Tattler staff also looked to music as a way to launch their publication independently. Several bands from the area agreed to play a concert at a local club to raise the starting fees, Ochshorn said. The Tattler is now supported by advertising.

After funding issues have been sorted, founders of an independent high school publication must then figure out how to fill the pages with editorial content.

At The Right Way, Whitney does not have a staff, but prints articles written by members of the Teenage Republicans Club and other conservative-minded students.

The Veridicus Times also operates without an official staff. Steege said she and Vo recruited students in advanced placement English classes to write the bulk of the articles. After the English students finished the articles, Steege and Vo recruited students in art classes to sketch illustrations to accompany them. They also recruited faculty members to write articles.

For Ochshorn, staffing the independent version of the Tattler was a simple matter ' the staff already existed, he just had to ensure that the publication was disconnected from Ithaca High in every manner, from using their own equipment to meeting off campus.

'It's just a matter of shifting everything,' he said. 'Working from my room instead of the school.'

The Tattler returned to the Ithaca High campus in June under a new adviser, ending its stint as an independent publication. The June issue ' the final one of 2004-2005 school year ' printed as the Tattler, shortly after which Ochshorn and other graduating staff members filed a lawsuit against the school for violating their First Amendment rights through its acts of censorship throughout the school year. (See 'N.Y.,' page 11.)

While Ochshorn welcomed the Tattler's return as the official school newspaper, he said publishing independently has its advantages.

'There's a lot of bureaucratic red tape about finances and other school procedures that make getting things done difficult' for an official school newspaper, he said. 'The Web is one example ' our Web site, even though it is not operated on school servers, it is heavily regulated by the school.

'That's completely bypassed in an independent publication,' he continued.

The Veridicus Times and The Right Way will continue this school year as independent publications.

For the Times, that means Steege and Vo trained editors to replace them. Only one issue of The Veridicus Times was published before the school year ended but Steege believes the editors taking over the paper will publish the independent quarterly. She advised them to keep pushing the limit.

The experience she gained by creating the Times will benefit her as she begins her freshman year at Northwestern University to study journalism, Steege added.

'I learned a lot more from this experience than most of the things I've done in high school,' she explained.

As for The Right Way, Whitney plans to continue editing the paper from his home as a senior at East Lansing High School this year. He believes the paper was successful in its first school year.

'I'd say I've gained some new conservatives through my paper,' he said.

Whitney hopes to pass the conservative message on to a new student editor after he graduates.

Because of the effort required to coordinate a publication outside of school, Ochshorn advised students interested in publishing an independent paper to get a big group of students involved.

'With a committed staff you can turn out a high quality publication independent of the school district,' he said.


Fall 2005, reports