Says high school students have free speech rights too
By Kristin Mohn
Athens News: cover story
September 20, 1999
Everyone has heard the old saying, “Children should be seen and not heard.” One might think, however, that the notion of limiting young people’s expression is obsolete these days. But is it?
Not according to the Free Student Press, a recently formed Athens-based organization that is striving to preserve students’ right to be heard. During the group’s kickoff meeting last Thursday in Baker Center’s Front Room, high school students and teachers as well as college students had the opportunity to meet organizers of the Free Student Press and learn more about their mission to advocate freedom of speech.
Trumpeting the slogan “…because 12 years is too long to be silenced,” Free Student Press strives to preserve First Amendment rights for student journalists and to educate young people on the importance of a democratic school system.
Damon Krane and Lisa O’Keefe, organizers of the group, proposed their ideas last spring to the Institute of Democracy in Education at Ohio University, which now works in conjunction with Free Student Press.
Krane stressed that the idea behind the group is to inspire student writers and publishers with the knowledge that their rights to freedom of speech remain valid within the high school or college setting.
“We want to make school to be a better place for students while they’re there,” he said.
“We want them to learn that following orders without questioning doesn’t prepare them for a democratic society.”
While Krane is a student at OU, O’Keefe is currently enrolled at the University of California at Santa Cruz. As co-founder of Free Student Press, she is fulfilling a required six-month field study for her Community Studies major. Because the field study must involve an organization advocating social advancement or change, O’Keefe felt this group would be a perfect opportunity to work toward her major as well as stress her personal beliefs concerning student publications.
“(School administrators) will punish you if you have something to say about the way your school is being run,” she cautioned.
“That’s uncool. You lack power in school, and that makes it hard to see you can make any difference.”
Thursday’s meeting, which included free food and live music, was attended by high school students from area school districts as well as several college students. Krane and O’Keefe spoke to the crowd on the importance of standing up to school restrictions and realizing individual rights under the First Amendment.
“A high school principal does not have more power than the Constitution,” Krane declared. He mentioned the 1988 Supreme Cout decision of Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which held that school-sponsored publications could be censored by school officials if they contained “inappropriate” content. However, Krane stressed that this ruling does not apply to indepdent student publications and that students still have the right to question authority in the case of censorship. (In at least one local school district, Alexander, the Student/Parent Handbook claims the principal has the right to censor all student publications, whether sponsored by the school or not.)
“On its basic level, democracy means learning to think for ourselves,” he said. “In school we’re taight to believe that [administrators] have all the power.”
During the meeting, audience members were asked to share their own stories where they felt their rights had been violated. O’Keefe offered questions to the audience, spurring them to consider their own situations at school.
“Why don’t we question school officials? Are [school administrators] really teaching you to think for yourself?” she asked.
Jaylynne Hutchinson, director of the Institute for Democracy in Education, initially invited Krane and O’Keefe to bring their project to Athens after receiving their eight-page proposal. She said Free Student Press embodies many of the Institute’s ideals, and stressed that speaking out is the only way to accomplish change.
“Don’t let anyone tell you that these things aren’t working or aren’t happening,” she said. “You have the opportunity to share your voice about what happens to you.”
Hutchinson also commented on the structure of schools and their inability to inspire students to make a difference. “School produces consumers,” she said. “It doesn’t produce you to be a radically different citizen.”
Amy King, representing the Athens chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said she was amazed by the stories audience members had shared and felt it’s dangerous to limit students’ expression.
“Ideas are really scary, but they are the bedrock of what we are as human beings,” she said. “If we can’t share them, we are nothing.”
Krane stressed that while Free Student Press is targeted toward high school publications, college productions could potentially be affected by the censorship of administrators.
“These issues are not just restricted to high school,” he said. Krane referred to a recent case involving a college yearbook at Kentucky State University, where the Kincaid v. Gibson Supreme Court ruling was “the first court decision to apply the Hazelwood Standard to the college press.”
Several teachers also attended Thursday’s event. Tim Arnold, a government instructor at Federal Hocking High School, brought his government class to the meeting and praised Free Student Press for their ideas and motivation.
“I think Free Student Press really has to start with the students – they really know what things are wrong with the schools,” he said. “This will give them the opportunity to solve problems and change the structure of the schools.”
Krane and O’Keefe emphasized that although censorship is often illegal, it is pervasive in schools, and that won’t change unless people take a stand.
“If you don’t stand up for these things, schools will become even worse,” said O’Keefe. “As students, you do have a lot of power.”
Free Student Press is holding its next meeting Wednesday from 6:30-8:00p.m. in room 304 of Baker Center.