First Amendment transgressions cause uproar at Nelsonville-York High School

By Eliza Riffe
April 2000
The Matrix (Athens High School-sponsored newspaper)

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Expressive students at Nelsonville-York High School survived a close-shave with authority early this year, and the students’ Athenian counterparts released a sigh of relief when the situation was concluded.

A handful of N-YHS students, among them senior Devin Aeh, distributed Lockdown, an independent publication featuring articles and poetry submitted by anonymous and named writes (all Nelsonville students) in the beginning of the 1999-2000 school Year.

After the first issue’s dissemination, Aeh, 18, was told that the distribution of a second issues would yield a suspension for those involved. “I tried to talk with him,” Aeh said about her encounter with N-YHS principal Tim Flesher, who first served the suspension threat. “He (Flesher) just said that he had the backing of the school board,” Aeh recalled.

Soon, representatives of Free Student Press ad the American Civil Liberties Union came to Aeh’s aid, claiming a breach of her First Amendment rights.

However, in early February, Aeh and her compatriots successfully handed out the second issues of Lockdown off school grounds. At this juncture, punishment has not yet been issued.

Meanwhile, Athens High School students are alarmed by the incident, but not overly concerned about their own freedom of speech.

“For the most part, student publications are encouraged and well-received, especially by the student body,” said sophomore Esther Bergdahl of the free speech situation at AHS. “Athens is a fairly liberal public school. I think my rights are protected.”

AHS had, in fact, seen a number of underground newspapers in the past, among them the long-running Sink and the female-oriented Village Bicycle.

The Sink, which was distributed for nearly two years (ending its run durin the 1998-1999 year), featured “whining and moaning about how things [aren’t good],” said Randal McPudding (individual asks that his Sink pseudonym be used to protect his anonymity), who ran the newspaper for its final six months and still attends AHS.

McPudding estimated that between fifteen and twenty AHS students contributed to the Sink during its existence, most of whom wrote anonymously. He explained that the publication no longer runs due to lack of submissions.

McPudding’s opinion of the Lockdown incident is mixed: “I’m not in favor of the school’s reaction, but I think [the publishers] could have realized how to work around the rules,” he said. McPudding feels that when materials critical of school are distributed within the school, “you’re just asking for trouble.”

The Village Bicycle, distributed during the 1998-1999 school year, was, in the words of its motto: “By girls, for girls.” The two-page leaflet was distributed in AHS ladies’ rooms.

G.I. Junk (individual wishes to use her Village Bicycle pseudonym to protect her anonymity), editor and contributor to the Village Bicycle, finds the N-YHS incident abhorrent.

“Unless the publication was in utterly poor taste,” she said, “the school’s administrators should not have the power to abridge students’ rights.”

G.I. Junk, like the ACLU and Free Student Press, cited the now-famous Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District U.S. Supreme Court decision that: “First Amendment rights, applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment, are available to teachers and students. It can hardly by argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

G.I. Junk concluded by saying, “This incident was ridiculous, but I think AHS students can rest assured that their rights are fairly secure.”

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