Free Student Press: Because 12 years is too long to be silenced

by Damon Krane
September 2000
Democracy & Education (The journal of The Institute for Democracy in Education)

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I entered the world of independent student publishing when I was a senior in high school. Three of my fellow students already had created their own publication, a little zine they called Hide and Go Speak, and passed it out at school. Its contents included a cartoon about the mall, interviews with two indie label bands, a discussion about systems of governance, and a commentary in opposition to the imprisonment of Mumia Abu Jamal. It wasn’t long before our school’s administration found out about Hide and Go Speak, and its writers were called to the principal’s office. There, the three students were told they were not within their rights to distribute their paper on school grounds unless it was first “edited” to the principal’s satisfaction. Since they had not done so, the writers were all given detentions, and that turned out to be the end of Hide and Go Speak.

Of course none of what the principals had told the students was true. In the case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, 1969, the Supreme Court ruled that student speech may not be suppressed in public schools unless school officials can show their censorship was necessary to prevent a serious disruption of school activities or the invasion of the rights of others. {1} Although the Supreme Court later stripped students of this protection within school-sponsored productions (e.g. school newspapers, plays, art exhibits, speeches) in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 1988, the Court reaffirmed in Hazelwood and subsequent cases that independent student productions like Hide and Go Speak are still protected by Tinker. {2} Because nothing written in Hide and Go Speak could have forseeably incited a riot or caused a walk-out, its writers were completely within their legal rights to distribute it on school grounds. Unfortunately, those students were as oblivious to their rights as were my friends and I. Who was going to teach us about our civil rights – the same school officials determined to violate them?

Some time after the demise of Hide and Go Speak, I felt students needed a place to freely express themselves in (and about) school. I brought the idea of starting a publication to some of my classmates whom I thought might be interested, and soon we began meeting regularly at a conference room in the public library.

Our meetings lasted for hours. Usually there were about 7 or 8 of us there. We talked about what had happened to the writers of Hide and Go Speak. We assumed we would face the same reaction from our school’s administrators, but we agreed that allowing administrators to censor our work was unacceptable; the entire purpose of our publication was to provide a place for students to honestly express themselves, in their own terms and on their own terms. Thus, assuming we would be punished for expressing ourselves and providing other students with a forum in which to do the same, we went ahead with the effort anyway – without asking for anyone’s permission.

In the discussions from which our magazine emerged, one guiding principle quickly became clear. We were creating this publication to escape the censorship exercised by our school’s administration (and teachers). We were not, therefore, simply going to end up substituting their censorship with our own. As a result, our publication would have no editor(s). There would be no separation between readers and writers. Our magazine would be open to everyone, not just the publication’s founding staff. All contributions (a term we preferred to “submissions”) would be accepted and printed. Each contributor would have total creative control over his or her own work. All matters that affected the work as a whole – such as format, production, and distribution – would be decided collectively. (I can still remember us all huddled around a magazine of blank pages, taping down articles, determining the order and layout as a group.)

Curiously, without the word “consensus” even in our vocabularies, we gravitated to a participatory democratic process and group structure. None of us was very politicized. The only definition we had of democracy was the one we had learned from an authoritarian school system. That is, “democracy” is a word the people in charge use to simultaneously obscure and legitimate their domination of others. Our democracy (though we never would have called it that) grew not out of any lucid ideology, but rather in direct contrast to the power structure we faced at school.

We named our magazine Free Head, at once a proud declaration of independent thought and a potentially offensive, sexual double entendre. What more could a high school student want? Our first issue was a compilation of the work of nine students: several young poets, social critics, honor role students, a budding anarchist and the most visibly Christian student in the school. We wrote about our opinions on music, school, social cliques, popularity, drugs, local events, abortion, religion, government, sex, love, responsibility, the military, censorship and more. All of us signed our names to our work.

Looking back, I can say with great confidence that freely choosing to write for the practical purpose of expressing the things I genuinely cared about did far more to improve my writing skills than did years of meaningless English papers. The intrinsic motivation to communicate myself to others did more to organize my views into clear arguments than any amount of grade-chasing ever could have done. But perhaps the most unexpected part of my experience as an independent student publisher happened after the publication of our first issue.

For four years my locker was two over from a classmate named Henry. Every day Henry and I stood next to each other, gathering our books. Rarely had we acknowledged one another’s existence. Henry was a basketball player (the team was in the state championships at the time of our first issue), and he got pretty good grades. Meanwhile my interests included listening to angry punk rock and sleeping through as much of school as possible.

One day, I was getting books out of my locker when Henry turned to me and said, “Hey, I read a copy of that magazine. It’s a really cool thing. Good luck on it.”

I was shocked. It’s not that we’d ever been uncivil to one another; we just didn’t talk. So I paused for a minute in response and then wished him good luck on his game that night.

Truthfully, I could not have cared less about basketball. Nevertheless, I wished Henry luck with complete sincerity because I had decided that if he could appreciate the work people were putting into something they cared about, maybe his efforts ought to bring him satisfaction, too.

Meanwhile, other students reacted to Free Head. Its articles sparked conversations, and suddenly people who had just been scenery in the halls –people who I though would have never cared about anything they couldn’t put on their college applications– were actual people with their own thoughts and opinions!

From the beginning, Free Head was not produced by students from the same social clique. Much like John Hughes’s Breakfast Club, we were about as diverse a group of students as the constraints of our nearly all-white, suburban high school could allow. We ranged from grades 10-12, with a female to male ratio of about 2:1. We had different interests, opinions, identities and social positions, but we all came together because we all wanted a place to honestly express ourselves at school. After we published our first issue, that same sense of commonality began to spread to the rest of the student body. We did not bring a total end to individual isolation and fragmented social cliques. But we did visibly breach barriers among students.

The final issue of Free Head was comprised of the work of 15 students from varying grade levels and one parent who wrote us a letter in support of our efforts. The entire issue was like a “letters to the editor” section of a newspaper – except that since there were no editors, people were speaking directly to one another. Students responded to things written in the previous issue with their own arguments. The issue was 65 pages long.

Although we only published two issues of Free Head, the experience was immensely more valuable and more genuinely educational for me than any else associated with my 12 years of compulsory schooling. Contrary to most of my other school experiences, it was empowering (!) both individually and socially. Not only did I gain self-confidence and develop better communication skills, I learned when a space exists that fosters people’s self expression, a community can emerge.

Typically, media are the means through which the few speak to the many – regardless of whether the few are reporting events, delivering entertaining distractions, or selling products. Yet through Free Head I learned firsthand that media could serve another role. Media could provide the means of authentic, egalitarian public dialogue – and thereby generate and sustain a community.

Finally, I learned that individuals can be extremely productive in the absence of coercion, and that a group can function very effectively without one or more central authorities dictating its course. This was my first experience with participatory democracy and collective action, and it has shaped my political outlook ever since.

But as powerful as the experience was, it could have been so much more substantial had my fellow magazine organizers and I not spent virtually three months of meetings discussing what we were going to do when we “got caught.” Had we not been so secretive about distribution in order to try to avoid punishment, we would have reached more students and more students could have reached us. The dialogue could have been enriched by so many more voices. The community could have been so much more inclusive. The empowering experiences that we had could have been magnified and shared by so many others. We could have taken our empowering educational experience so much further had we not explicitly been told we could not do such a thing at school.

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After high school, I began taking teacher education courses at a community college. Although my courses lacked names like Kohn and Kozol, the political science courses I was also taking were fabulous. Among other things, they exposed me to the media critiques of Robert McChesney, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky. I took much from these critiques and transferred it to my analysis of schools.

I saw many parallels between control of information in the mass media and control of information within mass public education. The mass media and public schools are the two main ways that information is disseminated to the American public. The manner in which both institutional structures disseminate this information shapes people’s perceptions and attitudes at least as much as does the information itself. As the media were discussed as political institutions, I kept reflecting on my school experiences, and I began to see schools a significant political institutions. More importantly, I came to see the current school system, much like the media system, as a major impediment to achieving a genuinely democratic society.

By the time I was in high school, I had already concluded that years of separating students’ interests from their formal education was why students were so disinterested in learning anything that wasn’t going to be on a test – anything that wasn’t going to get them some extrinsic reward, only to be forgotten immediately thereafter. Little by little, I came to understand that this was only part of a much more profound apathy that schools create, an apathy that lasts long after graduation.

For the vast majority of American citizens, school is our introduction to public life. It is also our “job” (as many teachers are fond of saying) for 12 years. As such, it is an introduction to public life in which the people governed have no say in their governance and a job where workers’ labor and the conditions thereof are forced upon them. Regardless of the class or subject matter, school remains consistent in those respects for at least 12 years. Fundamentally then, school amounts to an extensive training course in passivity, in deferring all decisions to authority figures and living in silent, ineffectual compliance. We learn that it is not our place to shape the world around us. We learn to accept social conditions as beyond our control. All of this, of course, is the antithesis of democracy.

When reading this article you will probably notice that I write about students in general as an oppressed class. I mean that in the truest sense. Although it would be absurd to suggest that U.S. students (especially the more affluent ones) are the most oppressed people in this country or this world, their oppression nevertheless is very significant because it prevents otherwise privileged people from using their privileges for the advancement of social justice. In a society with better opportunities for democracy than many, U.S. public schools instill the mindset that prevents most Americans from taking advantage of those opportunities.

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As I developed this analysis, it seemed to me (as it still does) that a more democratic society depended in large part on a more democratic school system that would encourage people to be active participants in their own lives, and not just the recipients of someone else’s commands. As this idea developed, my interest in the empowering potential of independent media also developed. Then one day, when I was doing research for a students’ rights project for an education course, I came across the Tinker and Hazelwood decisions concerning student publications. Gradually, things came together.

Over Winter Break of 1998, I got in touch with several friends and former contributors to Free Head. I invited them to my house one night and presented them with a very rough idea about how the current school system was antithetical to democracy, and that democratizing schools was necessary to democratize society. I was convinced that grassroots action was the way to go, and that meant the reforms themselves would come from the students. Since independent student publications enjoyed legal protection in public schools, student expression within them did not depend on the discretion of any school official. Therefore, these publications seemed to be the best way for students to bring their true voices back to even the most authoritarian public schools. The problem was (and still is), most students are as unaware of this legal protection as we were.

It seemed, then, that what was needed was a group, outside the school system, which would inform students of the constitutional rights that they weren’t likely to learn at school. I had become aware of the Student Press Law Center (an organization that has been providing educational and legal assistance to student journalists for 25 years), but it seemed that without a grassroots group “out in the field” working directly with students, few students would even know to seek out such resources.

When we as students had been told by our principal that we had no legal right to uncensored expression at school, we had never even thought to investigate that claim. This wasn’t because we trusted our principal to honestly inform us of our rights; rather it was because for 12 years we had been led to believe that within the walls of a school, our rights were whatever school officials said they were. Thus it seemed a group was needed to work against this misconception at the grassroots level. As recent high school graduates with experience in independent student publishing, I thought that we could be that group, providing students with the knowledge that we had lacked.

That night Lisa O’Keefe and I became partners in founding Free Student Press, a group that informs students of their First Amendment press rights as well as basic journalism law, and which promotes independent student publishing as a way for students to bring free speech back to school. We offer whatever assistance we can in students’ efforts, recognizing that all decisions are the students’ to make.

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In July of last year, Lisa and I moved to Southeast Ohio and began working with the support of a wonderful organization called the Institute for Democracy in Education. After 2 months of legal research, pamphlet production and other preparation, we held our first event. Free Student Press has been meeting with students from two area high schools on Wednesday evenings ever since.

Following our first event, we continued to cover student press and basic journalism law but also began facilitating discussions among high school students about their experiences at school. In a few weeks, students began bringing in writing. Less than a month after our first event, students from one area school were ready to put a publication together.

We reviewed the writing as a group. Lisa and I had already talked somewhat about libel law, and the students asked us for our advise on parts of articles that they thought might be seen libelous. By this time a college student who is also a local journalist had joined our efforts, and the addition of her voice made me feel more confident in our ability to advise students on these matters. In each case, we reviewed the passages in question, then gave students our assessment, and explained how we came to it. However, we also made it very clear in every case that the final decision of whether or not to print a passage was the students’ to make.

As they progressed toward publication, we asked the students if they wanted Lisa and I to send their school’s administrators information on student press rights prior to the students distributing their paper at school. The students decided that they would rather explain the First Amendment and Tinker ruling themselves on the very first page of their paper.

Less than one month after our first event, these students distributed the first issue of their paper between classes and during lunch on a Friday. In doing so, they disrupted no classes. The paper, titled included poetry, commentaries, a critique of passages from the student handbook, statistics on child abuse and the phone number of an abuse hotline. Much of the students’ writing also criticized the behavior of their new principal.

The following Tuesday the students responsible for the majority of the writing and distribution were called into the principal’s office. One student — we’ll call her “Erin” — laid a tape recorder on the principal’s desk. He told her to turn it off. Erin explained that her parents were on vacation and could not be there with her. Lacking any other witness, she told the principal that she would be recording the conversation. The principal reluctantly agreed.

He then told Erin that she could not bring the students’ publication onto school grounds. She calmly cited the Supreme Court case law that said she could, and kept her composure while she informed the principal that such censorship was a violation of students’ First Amendment rights. “I beg to differ,” the principal replied. Before throwing Erin out of his office, he told her that she would be suspended for “insubordination” if “anything like this turns up again.”

Erin had done more work on the paper than any other student, both in terms of writing, distribution and soliciting contributions from others students. She also happens to be the class valedictorian. After their meeting, the principal phoned Erin’s older sister and told her that, if suspended, Erin would lose her valedictorian status.

The students had planned to hold a meeting after school the following day to discuss their problems with some recent school policies. Upon learning of this, school officials told Erin students could be arrested if they tried to hold the meeting on school grounds. It was a busy day for everyone.

That night, Erin and other students decided to move the meeting to a public park near the school. The following day, Lisa and I came to observe the meeting, which was attended by about 40 high school students. About 15 minutes into the meeting police arrived and ordered the students to leave the park because they did not have “a permit from the mayor.” I later discovered there was (and still is) no ordinance on the books requiring such a permit.

Angry at both the administration’s handling of the paper and use of police force to break up the meeting at the park, one student produced a pamphlet comparing the principal to a dictator intent on eliminating any student who exercised his or her right to free speech. She distributed it the following morning and was promptly given a 10-day suspension.

That evening students met to determine their course of action. There was to be a pep rally the following day, and they wanted to somehow protest the administration’s actions and show their support for the suspended student. Lisa and I advised them to act in the most non-confrontational manner possible. Lisa and I offered to write a letter urging the administration to meet with the students, members of Free Student Press and other concerned parties. The students accepted our offer, and we left the meeting to write the letter.

However, after we left, the students learned that rumors had begun circulating the community. These rumors alleged that the students involved in the paper were planning some kind of violence against athletes and other students wearing school colors at the next day’s pep rally. In response, Erin and her fellow students called off their protest. However, to show how ridiculous the rumors were, the next day Erin dressed in school colors and painted her face to match.

However, the rumors resulted in roughly 30% of the student body being absent that day. The administration had also called in the police. The same armed police officers who had illegally evicted students from the public park now guarded the school’s entrance and patrolled its hallways.

Having learned of the situation at the school that morning, Lisa and I rushed to the school and delivered our letter.

While the students were in school, the rumors continued to spread. A short while after Lisa and I had returned form the school, Lisa received a call from her roommate. Someone had called her roommate’s workplace (which is near the school) saying that a student had been shot at the school.

We rushed out to the school once more. Arriving just as classes were letting out, we met up with Erin in the parking lot. We told her of the rumor of the shooting. She rolled her eyes and shook her head and shook her head in exasperation. There had been no violence whatsoever.

In place of any protests, students decided that Erin would try to give a speech at the pep rally. After her request was denied several times, the superintendent finally agreed to let Erin give the speech. Although she was not permitted to mention the publication, she talked to the crowd about the rumors and urged everyone to “work together to figure this stuff out.” When Erin finished, the entire student body –the same student body which the principal had told Erin was totally against her and upset by the paper– applauded her, football players included.

Students had been donating money to fund the second issue of the publication, and by the end of the day of the pep rally over $100 had been raised. Only one week after publication of the first issue, there were already enough contributions for #2 to go to print.

However, the school’s superintendent then tried to blame that Friday’s absences on the students’ paper in an attempt to meet the “material or substantial disruption” {1} standard which permits school officials to suppress student speech under Tinker. The courts, however, have been clear that the disruption must be the result of the speech itself or its manner of distribution and not due to a situation which results from the administrations’ suppression of student speech. {3}

The letter Lisa and I wrote requesting a meeting received no response. When I called the principal the following Monday morning to try again, he refused to arrange any meeting and hung up on me.

Lisa and I, along with several of the papers’ writers and their parents, members of the Institute for Democracy in Education, and my entire undergraduate education class attended a school board meeting held shortly thereafter to show our support for the high school student publishers. Two parents who had not read the publication attended in opposition.

At the meeting the superintendent read a press release stating that the previous week “all district offices were inundated with phone calls from concerned parents who informed us that a Columbine type shooting was to occur during the pep assembly and that athletes wearing orange were primary targets.”

Having refused every attempt we had made to meet with us and the students, the superintendent went on to blame the fears of violence on the students’ paper and the work of Free Student Press.

“It has been reported that college students are providing input to members of our student body. With no ties to the community, they have not had to hear the concerns of the parents of our community, nor have they had to counsel the elementary children now afraid in their new school. (The elementary building is linked to the high school by one hallway.)

“One place where children should feel safe is in school and these individuals took that from some of our students. This is a shame… [Our district’s] schools are safe, and we continually endeavor to keep them so. However, this task is difficult enough and to have it challenged by outside influences is regrettable.”

The two parents in attendance had children in the elementary school. Quite understandably, they were concerned for their children’s safety. The superintendent’s use of the phrase “Columbine type shooting” in conjunction with the student’s paper led them to be very much opposed to the publication they had not read. To make matters worse, after the superintendent and these parents had spoken the distinction between a student publication and an act of violence was blurred further by a local reporter who asked the school board, in all seriousness, “Well, don’t you have a zero tolerance policy against stuff like this?”

Lisa and I then spoke about the role of Free Student Press and students Constitutional rights. Erin and other students spoke in defense of their publication. A fellow education major and Free Student Press member presented a letter that my education class had written in support of Erin and the other students. After these comments in support of the paper, one school board member spoke up to confess that he had read the publication with his 11 year-old daughter, and neither of them saw any reason to be afraid.

After the meeting, the students stayed and explained the publication to one concerned parent for nearly an hour. However, the superintendent and principal clung to their threat to suspend students for publishing another issue. From that point on, they ceased all contact with the local media.

Attorneys for each side became involved. A visiting professor of law from Ohio State University publicly stated that the school was violating students First Amendment rights. Editorials and letters to the editor in support of the students appeared in the local papers. Finally, after holding back distribution of the second issue for three months, the students decided to distribute it after school on a lawn directly across the street from the school, with the property owner’s permission.

Free Student Press was there to support the students, and several local newspapers and one TV station covered the distribution. In fact, the publisher of one local newspaper — who started his career in journalism by producing an independent student newspaper in high school — came out to show his support for the students. A local ACLU attorney was also on hand as a legal observer.

The police who had illegally evicted students from the park and patrolled the school on the day of the rumors now had arrived to photograph the crowd of students and supporters for undisclosed reasons. But police made no attempt to disperse the crowd.

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In 1969 the US Supreme Court ruled that “state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism.” {1} 30 years later, it doesn’t seem like word has gotten around.

Based on our experiences as students and our research prior to launching this project, Lisa and I knew that a confrontation with dictatorial administrators was inevitable. However, we were surprised that the confrontation happened immediately and that it was so severe.

It has been astounding to see how far Erin’s administrators have gone to try to justify their censorship. They have tried everything from lying to the students about the law, threatening students with suspension and loss of academic standing, to virtually equating the students’ publication with violence. In a letter to Erin’s attorney, the school’s attorney even went so far as to take a line from an obviously anti-drug poem out of context to claim that the student author was, in fact, using the publication to advocate drug use!

To me, this shows what is fundamentally wrong with our schools: the lengths school officials will go to shut out the critical voices of students. But it is nothing new. In a 1994 interview Christopher Eckhardt recalled his schools’ response when he (then 16 years old) and 13 year-old Mary Beth Tinker and her 15-year-old borther John all wore their black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War in December of 1965:

“…the gym coaches said that anybody wearing armbands [the first day of the planned protest] had better not come to gym class because they’d be considered communist sympathizers…. the vice principal asked if I ‘wanted a busted nose.’ He called my mom to get her to ask me to take the armband off… Then he called the girls’ counselor in. She asked if I wanted to go to college and said that colleges didn’t accept protesters. She said I would probably have to look for a new high school if I didn’t take the armband off.” {4}

After none of this worked, Christopher and Mary Beth were simply thrown out of school until they were willing to return without their armbands. They didn’t return until the protest was originally scheduled to end, and then took their school to court. This became the Tinker case, and when it was finally decided by the Supreme Court in 1969, it resulted in the First Amendment protection that students are supposed to currently enjoy today within independent student publications.

Now, one might attribute the reaction of Christopher Eckhardt’s school to the Cold War paranoia of a by-gone era and the fact that the country was at war then. Similarly, one might also attribute the reaction of Erin’s school to the post-Columbine hysteria that has swept the country. However, I would argue that while particular circumstances affect each situation, censorship is no aberration in public schools. On the contrary, it is the inevitable result of the power structure of our school system.

Fundamentally, schools are coercive institutions, their form of authority being synonymous with domination. It makes complete sense then that students aren’t going to learn of their rights to uncensored expression at school. Free speech is the most essential part of democracy. Therefore, it doesn’t seem likely that the representatives of an anti-democratic power structure are going to teach students something that would inevitably undermine their dominance. If there is an outbreak of democracy — even in the form of a student publication — school officials will most likely try very hard to do away with it.

While the recent wave of suburban school shootings has played a role in increasing violations of students’ rights, the experiences that led Lisa and I to found Free student Press occurred more than two years before those shootings. In fact, administrative censorship has been rampant throughout the last three decades, and has been recorded by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Student Press Law Center and others. (See also Captive Voices: The Report of the Commission of Inquiry into High School Journalism for extensive documentation.) {7}

The cases that have been reported, however, are only the few in which students knew enough to suspect their First Amendment rights were being violated and went on to take the matter to court. Countless more students — I suspect most students — find themselves in schools that simply don’t teach students their civil rights (or worse: at one local school here in southeast Ohio, students report that their principal routinely tells them that the Bill of Rights doesn’t apply to students at school.) Many others students who try to express themselves openly succumb to the intimidation of school officials. It is safe to assume, then, that administrative censorship of the student press far exceeds that which has been reported and reflects a consistent tendency on the part of schools to suppress student speech that transcends any specific circumstances.

If we are committed to changing the profoundly anti-democratic nature of our schools, then we need to address this most blatant (and illegal) opposition to the inclusion of student voice.

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At Free Student Press we think that the most effective democratic reforms come from the people who are most affected by them. When it comes to democratic school reform, that means the students. It is one thing for a teacher to allow students a degree of voice within a classroom. This is a step in the right direction. But even this is contingent upon the teacher’s discretion to allow it. Real student empowerment is not something a teacher gives to students; rather student empowerment is what happens when students realize the capabilities that they themselves possess to affect change. Empowerment, like education (as opposed to behaviorist conditioning), is not something “done to” students. With that in mind, independent student publications have several important advantages.

Inherently student-centered. Regardless of their specific content, these publications are, by their nature, a way for students to resist the systematic process of alienation they face at school. Whether students are writing poetry about a painful break-up or a commentary about military recruiters at their school – a school policy they hate or the music they love – students’ experiences are the basis of their work. This is what I meant earlier when I wrote that these publications are a way of reuniting students’ selves with their work. It is how empowering education occurs, regardless of the specific content.

Free Spaces. To me, the biggest obstacle to cultivating democracy in the classroom is that most students have been so thoroughly taught that their concerns don’t matter at school. Speaking as a student, the apathy and cynicism this creates is hard for a good teacher to overcome, especially when the overall environment of school is not conducive to student voice.

Independent student publications operate outside of the constraints of this oppressive environment where attendance isn’t compulsory and you don’t lose points for nonconformity. Consequently, I see these publications as what Sara Evans and Henry Boyte have termed “free spaces,” {5} and I think that within the movement for democracy in education, these publications have the power to be what black churches were to the Civil Rights Movement and what small “consciousness-raising groups” were to the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960-70’s.

The writers of The Democratic Debate: An Introduction to American Politics, write that “black churches provided spaces for the Civil Rights Movement that were free from the domination of whites, where blacks could express their true feelings and develop confidence in their abilities.” Similarly, the overbearing male dominance prevalent within the New Left did not provide a context in which women could develop self-confidence, so women began meeting in small consciousness-raising groups “where they could articulate their concerns in a supportive atmosphere.” These groups “became free spaces where women could recognize their common problems and develop the confidence to bring about change.” {6}

To Evans and Boyte, free spaces are places where marginalized people can develop the skills necessary for democratic participation: self-respect, critical thinking, effective communication, self-confidence, and a sense of collective identity and social responsibility. When school fails to provide the supportive atmosphere that these qualities need during their vulnerable stages of germination, independent student publications can be the free spaces students need to become empowered participants in their own lives.

The basis of a more democratic classroom. The nature of free spaces is that they are not ends in and of themselves, and when it comes to independent student publications, that is true for teachers as well as students. Once the students have become adequately empowered outside of the oppressive environment of school, a democratically-minded teacher can then use the publication as a springboard for class discussion.

To me, this is the way to really bring democracy into the classroom, especially within a typically authoritarian school. Rather than using the constraints of an authoritarian school system as your starting point and then trying to fit students’ concerns into those confines, you can take the much more student-centered approach of beginning with student’s concerns as students express them outside of those confines. Then authentic student voice can enter the classroom, transforming students’ educational experiences.

Critical pedagogy in action. For me, the most essential part of democratic education is critical pedagogy, because a healthy democracy depends on a critically-minded citizenry.

So you don’t work at Central Park East and your principal is about as progressive as AM radio… don’t overlook the potential that an authoritarian school provides for real student empowerment! Just as many teachers have found that US History textbooks are more useful for pointing out the imperialistic, classist, racist, and sexist biases of the dominant culture than they are for anything else, authoritarian schools can serve as perhaps the best focal point of students’ developing critical thinking skills.

School is, after all, the dominant institution in students’ lives, yet its power structure is well within sight when compared to larger governing institutions, and it affects students’ lives in ways that are hard for them to overlook. What better place for students to examine power dynamics and the concept of fairness and social justice than where those broad issues of critical importance touch them directly?

It has been my experience that students need little or no encouragement to begin this process, they merely need the free space for uncensored expression and dialogue that independent student publications provide. This space turns “I hate school” into “I hate this about school because…” and students become more critically engaged in their own education.

As student rights advocates/activists, we at Free Student Press have had the advantage of not being viewed by the students we work with as representatives of the same school system that marginalizes them. Teachers are in a very different situation. But there are very important things that those of you can do to support and assist students in this truly empowering experience without negating the authentic “student-centeredness” of independent student publishing. We offer the following suggestions for teachers based on our work with high school students thus far.

1.) Educate yourself. As a professional educator, you owe it to your students to know how their civil rights apply to them at school. Become familiar with the Tinker and Hazelwood standards as well as the category of “unprotected speech,” which includes libel, obscenity, and invasion of privacy. (These are all legal terms. For instance, “four-letter words” do not fall into the legal category of obscenity.) By far, the best single source we have come across on student press law is the Student Press Law Center’s Law of the Student Press, which can be ordered directly from the SPLC. Their website at http://www.splc.org is also a good place to start. I also highly recommend reading Captive Voices: The Report of the Commission of Inquiry into High School Journalism. {7} Published in 1974, it is the most comprehensive study of the student press that I have come across and includes interviews with independent student publishers who have faced administrative censorship.

2.) Educate your students. Have class discussions on the role of the First Amendment throughout this country’s history with regard to social movements and social change. Discuss controversies surrounding free speech. Most importantly, honestly and thoroughly inform students of how the First Amendment applies to them at school, and place it in a meaningful context.

Students deserve to know their history. It is one of the most crucial tools oppressed people have to improve their situation. Tell them the story of Mary Beth Tinker and Christopher Eckhardt. Tell them about the principal of East Hazelwood School District and Kathy Kuhlmeier. Discuss the Berkeley Free Speech movement and other college student movements of the 1960’s for democracy in education. Tell students about the First Amendment struggle of Kelly Peterson who formed the first Gay-Straight Alliance at her high school in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1996. Your students could also study various independent student publications of the past 30 years in as part of various lessons.
Honestly, I’m not sure how a Math or Science teacher would best go about this process, but Social Studies and English teachers should have no problem integrating this information into many different lessons. After doing so, simply step aside. Remember, the key word here is “independent.” Don’t approach independent student publishing as if it was a teacher-initiated class activity. Just give students the information within a meaningful context, and let them take it from there.

3.) Educate your colleagues and community. Recently, I attended a talk by a respected Civil Rights leader, who was to speak on the topic of “Social Justice and Education.” I was very dismayed to learn that this person was oblivious to students’ press rights and assumed they had none. There is a great need to raise general awareness, so in addition to educating your students, talk to colleagues about both the existence and importance of students’ press rights. If the opportunity presents itself, talk to parents and other community members. Do you best to spread the word.

4.) Offer your assistance from a respectful distance. Although teachers often have as little to do with determining school policy as do students, I’d be willing to bet that teachers are still the most familiar representatives of the school system to most students. If you have overcome this hurtle and proven yourself worthy of your students’ trust, they will probably come to you for assistance at some point. Be there to provide them with it*, but be very respectful of their developing confidence in this area. Many students will be sharing parts of themselves for the first time, and will be very vulnerable. Be there to support them, but be very, very mindful of not infringing upon the process or violating their trust. Respect their space and their autonomy.

*In assisting students, however, be very careful not to offer school resources (computers for layout, paper and other supplies, etc.) or other forms of assistance that school officials could later use to support a claim that the student paper was less than independent in nature. Administrators have tried this tactic in past cases, and if they are successful in persuading a court, the publication may be censored under the Hazelwood Standard. (For more information on this particular factor, contact the Student Press Law Center or Free Student Press.) Many teachers may not be used to thinking along such lines, but you’ll need to start if you want to fulfill the next step.

5.) Be prepared to be a strong students’ rights advocate. Though the you-know-what doesn’t always hit the fan, expect that it will to some degree. Be prepared to defend students against the attacks of administrators and others who may be intent on silencing them. Be ready to be a strong student’s rights advocate in the classroom, the teacher’s lounge, the principal’s office, the school board meeting, the PTA meeting, and the “letters to the editor” section of your local paper. Build alliances with other supportive teachers, parents, and community members.

_______________

Originally, I had thought Lisa and I would start Free Student Press, we’d make some pamphlets and create a website. Then students from all over the country would contact us, we’d send them some pamphlets, and –viola!– the public school experience would be revolutionized! All we really had to worry about was getting the money to print all of those pamphlets…

However, I soon learned that this wasn’t going to be the case. At the height of the situation at Erin’s school, Lisa and I were in constant communication with the students and met with them 10 times in one two week period. Luckily, Erin and her fellow publishers have had the support of their parents, one teacher, and another wonderful community member whose house was like a second home to them. Closer to the students both emotionally and geographically than Lisa and I were, this adult was able to counsel them on the stress they faced after the school’s reaction. The experience continues to show me the enormous amount of support students need when they challenge their oppressive schools. (We at Free Student Press, in turn, have benefited from the unwavering support of Jaylynne Hutchinson and the main office of the Institute for Democracy in Education.) Needless to say, I’m glad we didn’t have the money to print all those pamphlets, because one school has kept us busy enough!

_____________

And getting back to that one school… How have things turned out for Erin and her fellow student publishers? Following a large show of public support, the students distributed 170 copies of their second issue. No students were suspended or otherwise “disciplined” for doing so. A third issue has since been distributed, with a fourth on the way.

While students were rushing to get their hands on the second issue, Erin told the local media

“The main thing is to get the paper out for the students to read. It is their voice and I believe they enjoy reading it. I am very pleased with the content in this issue and am pleased that we were able to distribute the paper in a peaceful manner. The entire incident taught us two valuable lessons — not to be afraid to stand up for what we believe in and the importance of freedom of expression.”

So I hope that none of this has scared you away. It hasn’t scared us away. Nor has it scared away Erin and her classmates. And I feel that anyone who believes in democracy in education owes it to students to support them in their struggle to make their voices heard — for the good of those students and for the good of an as-yet-unrealized American democracy.

For more information on how you call become involved, please contact Free Student Press at [now defunct address – contact the author instead via “Contact” tab above].

FOOTNOTES

1.) Tinker v. Des Moines Community School District, 393 U.S. 503, 511 (1969)

2.) Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988)

3.) Law of the Student Press (Arlington VA: Student Press Law Center, 1994)

4.) “Death by Cheeseburger: High School Journalism in the 1990’s and Beyond,” The Freedom Forum, 1994, pp. 95-96

5.) Sara M. Evans and Harry C. Boyte, Free Spaces: The Sources of Democratic Change in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992)

6.) Bruce Miroff, Raymond Seidelman, and Todd Swanstrom, The Democratic Debate: An introduction to American Politics (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998)

7.) Captive Voices; the Report of the Commission of Inquiry into High School Journalism Prepared by Jack Nelson (New York: Schocken Books, 1974)

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2 Responses to Free Student Press: Because 12 years is too long to be silenced

  1. Pingback: From Censorship to Neglect? | Damon Krane

  2. Pingback: Public schools aren’t supposed to be “enclaves of totalitarianism,” but some local administrators and police never learn | Damon Krane

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