Athens incumbent mayor responds to challenge with false, misleading figures

By Damon Krane
Blog Exclusive
March 8, 2019

Athens, Ohio mayor Steve Patterson has good reason to want to give the impression that Athens doesn’t have a slumlord problem and that he has a good handle on rental housing code enforcement. Information included in a class-action lawsuit recently filed by former Carriage Hill Apartment tenants suggests that under Mayor Patterson’s direction inadequate code enforcement endangered the lives of dozens of city residents and contributed to approximately 41 residents losing their homes and personal belongings to fire in February 2017. What’s more, I just announced I’m running against Patterson in this year’s mayoral race, and I’m an independent democratic socialist with a plan to improve rental housing conditions that I call “Operation Slumlord Smackdown.”

But now Patterson is in a real pickle because, aside from Athens having a slumlord problem and current rental housing code enforcement being severely inadequate, Patterson appears to have knowingly misrepresented city data to suggest otherwise.

When the Athens News questioned Patterson about my campaign launch this past Wednesday, he responded by substantially under-representing the actual size of the Code Enforcement office’s rental housing inspection workload and by substantially over-representing the size of its rental housing inspector workforce. Those two misrepresentations, taken together, give the impression that Code Enforcement is much better equipped to do its job than it actually is, and that Mayor Patterson is doing much more to ensure safe rental housing in Athens than he actually is.

First, Patterson told the Athens News that 5,625 rental housing inspections were performed last year. So that must mean code officers inspected rental housing units in Athens 5,625 times last year, right?


5,625 actually is the exact number of registered rental housing units listed on the current February 1, 2019 edition of the “City of Athens Registered Rental Housing List” published on the Code Enforcement section of the City of Athens website. Code officers are responsible for inspecting each of these rental housing units once annually. But code officers also are responsible for conducting follow-up inspections to determine whether landlords have corrected previously identified violations. (You know, like the follow-up inspection of Carriage Hill Apartments that reportedly wasn’t scheduled to occur until almost an entire month after code officers discovered several faulty smoke detectors and at least one expired fire extinguisher. That is, the follow-up inspection that never occurred because part of the apartment complex burned down first.)

What’s more, on top of annually inspecting each rental housing unit and conducting follow-up inspections code officers are responsible for responding to tenant complaints by investigating alleged code violations. A reasonable person might also term these investigations “rental housing inspections.” Indeed, under the heading of “Inspections,” the Code Enforcement section of the City of Athens website states, “The compliance facet of our daily responsibilities includes investigations for rental housing permits. There are currently four officers conducting these inspections annually.  The office also handles other inspections which address legislatively determined needs of the community, such as… Rental housing complaints.”

As it turns out, code officers are expected to perform quite a lot of these follow-up and complaint-initiated inspections each year in addition to all those regularly scheduled annual inspections. Just how many? Well, the city hasn’t published its data for 2018 yet, but the 2017 Office of Code Enforcement and Community Development Annual Report is available on the City of Athens website, and it provides information for other recent years.

The report states that in 2017 there were 5,587 registered rental units in the city of Athens and that, in addition to the 5,535 “rental inspections” (i.e. regularly scheduled annual inspections) performed that year, code officers conducted 3,791 “re-inspections” and 647 “complaint investigations.” So in 2017 fewer regularly scheduled annual inspections were performed than the number of total registered rental housing units (i.e. 5,535 regular annual inspections of 5,587 units). But when we add to that year’s 5,535 “rental inspections” the 3,791 “re-inspections” and 647 “complaint investigations,” we find that code officers actually inspected city rental housing units 9,973 times in 2017 – a number of inspections 44% greater than the number of rental units.

What about 2016? According to the report, there were 5,607 registered city rental units in 2016. Meanwhile, code officers conducted 3,285 regular annual “rental inspections” that year, plus 3,096 “re-inspections” and 593 “complaint investigations.” Thus code officers inspected city rental housing units 6,974 times in 2016 – a number of inspections 20% greater than the number of rental housing units.

What’s more, given that the 2017 report boasts that the Code Office was able to implement new practices that year that reportedly doubled the number of daily inspections over those conducted in 2016, it seems more likely that the 2018 inspection total would be more like the higher 2017 total figure than the relatively lower 2016 total figure. But given that the 2017 total includes 4,348 more inspections than the 5,625 inspections Patterson claimed code officers performed in 2018, while the 2016 total included 1,349 more inspections than Patterson’s alleged 2018 total count, both year’s previous inspection totals are much higher than Patterson’s 2018 figure.

So what are we to make of Mayor Patterson’s claim that, as the Athens News paraphrased him, “Code Enforcement officers performed a total of 5,625 inspections” in 2018? –that is, his claim that code officers conducted precisely the same number of rental housing inspections as there are registered rental housing units in the City of Athens – when, according to the 2017 report, during both 2017 and 2016 code officers conducted fewer regular annual inspections than there were rental housing units, but substantially more total inspections than there were rental housing units?

Whether intentional or not, Patterson appears to have given the Athens News a false figure – and one which most likely substantially under-represents the actual workload of rental housing inspections.

If so, it’s not the only false figure Patterson gave the Athens News and its readers.

Just as a smaller workload is easier to tackle than a larger workload, any workload is easier to tackle with a larger workforce than with a smaller workforce.  And – again, perhaps coincidentally — just as Patterson appears to have severely under-represented the rental housing inspection workload, he also appears to have severely over-represented the rental housing inspection workforce.

Patterson told the Athens News that those 5,625 inspections were performed “with five, six if you count (Code Enforcement Director) Rick Sirois, code enforcement officers.” But why would we count anyone as a code officer responsible for rental housing inspections who is not actually employed as a code officer responsible for rental housing inspections?

The City of Athens website and the 2017 report both list the Code Enforcement staff to include 1 director, 2 administrative assistants, 2 solid waste inspectors, and 4 code officers.

Similarly, remember that the Code Enforcement website states, “The compliance facet of our daily responsibilities includes investigations for rental housing permits. There are currently four officers conducting these inspections annually.”

And finally, the 2017 report states,

“Three of the four Code Officers do rental inspections 3 of the 4 weeks a month, the other Code Officer assists with permits in the office and patrols the city for issues such as trash, signs, etc. The fourth week of the month the officers will do re-inspections from the previous month. Every Friday, each officer patrols his particular zone, looking for any of the above mentioned items. So to summarize, in a 20 day work month with 4 officers, a total of 80 man work days, the Code Officers doing inspections 48 of those days and 32 days are spent doing their other job obligations.”

So, contrary to Mayor Patterson’s claim that there are 6 code enforcement officers inspecting rental housing, it would appear there are actually 4 — and that even those 4 inspectors are not solely tasked with rental housing inspections but expected to perform a grab bag of other duties as well. Indeed, if the above statement from the 2017 report still applies, then there are only 3 code officers performing rental inspections — just half the number Patterson claimed!

As the mayor, Patterson is ultimately responsible for the operation of the Code Enforcement office. Shouldn’t he know how many people work there and what they do?

Intentionally or not, Mayor Patterson has misrepresented city data in a way that would mislead Athens News readers to conclude the city is better equipped to enforce the code in rental housing than it actually is. To me that kind of misrepresentation doesn’t look like the work of a mayor who’s striving to solve our slum housing crisis – it looks like the work of a mayor who’s either woefully uninformed about his own administration or who’s desperately trying to sweep our slum housing crisis under the rug. Maybe Patterson is nervous because it’s no longer just the health, safety, privacy, and financial security of the vast majority of Athenians who live in rental housing that’s on the line; now it’s Mayor Patterson’s job, too.

The fact of the matter is that the City of Athens has never allocated to its Code Enforcement office anywhere near the staff and resources necessary for that office to adequately enforce the city’s existing housing code. With just 4 inspectors not even solely tasked with rental housing code enforcement and 5,625 registered rental units in Athens, too few inspectors are stretched too thin to be able to actually perform the thorough inspections we need, especially after the quality of rental housing has been allowed to progressively deteriorate during so many decades of neglect. At the same time, the City has never enacted a housing code strong enough to prevent predatory slumlords from running rampant. Among other measures, we need a much stronger code and much more aggressive code enforcement. Finally, we need a mayor who will oversee a more determined and successful Code Enforcement office — one with the staff and resources necessary to fulfill its mission.

Unfortunately, Mayor Patterson is content to pass the buck. According to the Athens News, “The mayor noted that his job as mayor is not to create legislation in regards to housing or other matters; that’s the responsibility of the legislative branch, City Council.” But I have a decidedly different take on Athens City Council. I believe that if Athenians elect me on the basis of Operation Slumlord Smackdown, they’ll send a powerful message to every single city officeholder: start doing right by renters or get replaced by someone who will. So rather than being a mayor who hides behind council’s inaction, I’ll be the mayor who compels council to join me in making Athens a better place for its residents, whether council members like it or not.

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Stop Politicians and Landlords from Corporatizing Athens, Ohio

By Damon Krane
The Athens News
Monday, April 2, 2018


The author in 2016, working at Hot Potato Food Truck, which he owns and operates in Athens, Ohio.


Ask Athenians why they love their town, and you’re sure to hear about our local independent food and beverage scene, our arts scene, and our progressive politics. And what’s interesting is how deeply these three elements of our community are intertwined.

Our local food and beverage scene is nationally renowned, not because of the ubiquitous corporate fare of chains like Applebees and Starbucks, but because of the innovative culinary diversity of independent local businesses like Casa Nueva and Cantina, Restaurant Salaam, Jackie O’s, Bagel Street Deli, Donkey Coffee, Village Bakery and many more.

But how many local art openings does Ruby Tuesdays host? How many local musicians or poets perform at Starbucks?

Could you purchase bus tickets to a national demonstration against the Iraq War at Jimmy Johns? Did Papa John’s CEO join indigenous water defenders at Standing Rock? How much bulletin board and table space does Wendy’s devote to literature on community and campus organizing?

Who’s got solar panels on their roofs? Who buys from local, organic farmers?  Who participates in Rural Action’s Zero Waste Initiative? Who strives to pay employees a living wage? Who is a worker-owned cooperative?

As a socialist, far be it from me to romanticize entrepreneurship – including my own (I own and operate Hot Potato Food Truck). Not every local independent food and beverage business supports our arts scene or participates in our progressive politics. But a very large percentage of them do – as compared to about zero percent of their corporate counterparts – and that difference matters.

That’s why it’s so infuriating that our Democratic mayor and city council are undermining the food, drinks, arts and politics that we love so much about Athens by helping landlords corporatize our food and beverage scene.

Last summer the Athens News reported on four commercial spaces for rent uptown and on the Near Eastside – each a prime location for a food or beverage establishment – that had been sitting vacant for months. The reason is simple. To maximize their profits landlords have demanded higher rents for these spaces than local independent operators can afford to pay. That’s why nine months after the News’s article, three of those spaces remain vacant and one is occupied by a Starbucks.

But that’s only half the story. While landlords are holding out for high volume corporate chains, city officials are making it harder than ever for independent local operators to enter the market through mobile vending.

Only brick-and-mortar restaurants can provide the experience of indoor seating, table service and cozy ambience. But mobile vendors can follow hungry crowds of pedestrians throughout the day, providing a convenient bite to eat outdoors. In food truck-friendly cities, vendors are permitted to operate from most public parking spots. Cities charge vendors a fee to compensate for parking meter revenue and then collect income tax from mobile vendors’ sales. Residents enjoy more diverse dining options. Cities gain funds to pay for expanded public services. And because parking spots aren’t auctioned off to the highest bidder, local vendors don’t get displaced by inferior corporate chains.

Yet Athens city officials have immobilized mobile vending, long confining vendors to a fraction of a single city block and preventing them from operating on private property during the springtime neighborhood festivals. When our current mayor, Democrat Steve Patterson, was on city council in 2013, he drafted an ordinance that slashed reserved vending hours on Union Street by a whopping two-thirds, thereby making it nearly impossible for vendors to serve dinner at an event on private property elsewhere and then return to College Green for late night operation. Then last November Independent council member Patrick McGee set out to reduce the number of vending spots on Union Street, and at the February 26 council meeting Mayor Patterson pointed out that some cities don’t even allow mobile food vending on city property outside of occasional special events. (The cities Patterson cited were Chillicothe, Marietta and Oxford, Ohio, none of which is known for a thriving food, beverage, arts, or progressive political scene.)

By immobilizing mobile vending and making it ever more difficult for vendors to operate, city officials have prevented vendors from traveling with the times.

When I first moved to Athens in 1999, College Green was like a beach. In fall and spring it was packed with sunbathers and Frisbee players, groups of people relaxing on blankets as they talked or read – and, of course, abundant mobile food options. When I began working at the Burrito Buggy in 2006, the old student center was still right next door and its Front Room provided climate controlled indoor seating and a spacious outdoor patio.

But in 2007 OU moved Baker Center to the other side of campus, taking with it the daytime crowds from College Green and the dining space of the Front Room. As bar goers gradually became more concentrated near the intersection of Court and State streets, late night business along College Green also dissipated. Finally, in 2012 OU switched from quarters to semesters, thereby removing May from the regular school year and depriving vendors of what had been their best month of student business.  Yet despite changing pedestrian traffic patterns and a shortened school year, city officials kept mobile vendors trapped in the same spots since the 1980s.

In the face of gentrifying market forces, mobile vending is a vital way to protect our progressive local culture – but not if city officials continue to stand in the way. Athens needs to revise its antiquated vending ordinance to either 1) make most public parking spaces available to mobile vendors or 2) open up additional restricted vending areas in other locations.

If you agree, then it’s vital that council and the mayor hear from you – at this Monday’s council meeting at 7:00pm on the 3rd floor of the City Building, and via phone and email. Because right now they’re discussing a new ordinance that would not only keep mobile vendors immobilized but also reduce vending space. They couldn’t do worse for Athens if they tried.


Damon Krane is a longtime Athens, Ohio-based progressive activist, campus and community organizer, and journalist. He owns and operates Hot Potato Food Truck.

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Ohio University students can defeat their school’s new protest ban just like they defeated past speech restrictions

By Damon Krane
The Athens News (Athens, Ohio)
October 19, 2017

Restrictions on speech and assembly intended to suppress student activism are nothing new at Ohio University. Much like the new indoor campus protest ban, administrators used to ban protest from most outdoor areas of campus.

Likewise, just as current administrators have tried to use the fascist violence in Charlottesville to justify silencing nonviolent anti-fascist students at OU, past administrators tried to use a violent, misogynistic homophobe’s desire to demonstrate on campus to justify silencing students resisting misogynistic and heterosexist campus violence.

Times and faces have changed, but the administration’s playbook remains the same. As today’s students and their allies fight to defeat OU’s current assault on the First Amendment, it is helpful to review past campus speech struggles in which students ultimately prevailed, and to more closely analyze the current protest ban.

In February 2002, I joined with other OU students to organize a walkout in protest of administrators’ response to campus sexual assault and anti-LGBT hate crimes. During an eight-day stretch that January, three female students had reported being sexually assaulted, and one lesbian student had reported being jumped and beaten by multiple assailants as she walked home on campus from an LGBT dance party uptown.

Back then OU led all public universities and colleges in the state of Ohio with the highest number of rapes reported in residence halls. But not many people knew, since, as I discovered in the lead-up to our walkout, from at least October 1998 through March 2002 OU had been violating federal law (specifically, the Clery Act) in order to hide from its students and employees not only campus crime statistics, but also information on crime prevention, reporting and survivor support – all illegal actions by administrators that likely increased sexual violence at OU. (For more information, see my February 27, 2017 Athens News column.) Meanwhile, administrators kept busy telling female students to drink less alcohol and not walk alone at night. 

Needless to say, we student activists had a lot to talk about, and we wanted to be heard. So we planned for our walkout to culminate in an open mic style rally at the most iconic, accessible, centrally located, highly visible location we could think of – one we knew from black and white photos from the Vietnam War era had been the site of countless demonstrations over the years: the Civil War Monument on College Green.

Administrators quickly stepped in to tell us the monument was off-limits, and that OUPD would arrest students for trespassing on our own campus if we tried to rally there. (See my video footage of OU officials making, and later denying, this threat.) The 2002 version of the recently updated Ohio University policy 24.016 “Use of Outdoor Spaces on the Athens Campus” restricted outdoor student protests to a limited number of mostly out-of-the-way campus locations (pejoratively dubbed “free speech zones”) that students had to apply to reserve in advance. The Civil War monument on College Green was not one of these locations.

What’s more, administrators informed us that OU was being sued by an off-campus group that wanted access to the monument – namely, a traveling band of misogynistic, heterosexist, Christian fundamentalist street preachers led by Charles “Brother Chuck” Spingola, an imposing, wild-eyed body builder with slicked-back hair who carried his bible in a gun holster. For years he had appeared on various Midwest campuses to denounce students as fornicators, sodomites and baby-killers in highly animated sermons which, at OU and elsewhere, were occasionally marred by violence and dozens of times ended with his arrest.

Spingola had made headlines in 1998 for an altercation in which he broke the nose of a Kent State University student, and in 1999 for climbing a flagpole at the Ohio Statehouse to tear down and then burn a rainbow flag during the Columbus Pride Parade. At the 2001 Pride Parade, he was arrested for splashing gasoline on a female parade security worker.

A year after the 2002 OU student walkout, the group The Army of God published a commentary by Spingola titled “Praise be to God and the Christian Terrorist.” In it, Spingola heaped praise on James Charles Kopp, Eric Rudolph and Clayton Lee Wagner — “[t]hose blessed few who actually terrify the wicked.” Kopp was convicted of the 1998 sniper-style murder of OB/GYN Barnett Slepian; Rudolph of bombing the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, as well as the 1997 bombings of abortion clinics in Atlanta and Birmingham, and of an Atlanta lesbian bar; and Wagner of a foiled 1999 plot to bomb multiple abortion clinics, a 2001 anthrax hoax, and a 1992 bank robbery.

“As cream rising to the top of the milk, so the Christian terrorist rises above the huddled masses of churchgoers and the many voices which denounce their violent attempts to defend the innocent from their murderous assailants,” he wrote.

At the same time, Spingola’s own violence had already endeared him to other militant fundamentalist Christians.

“The student turned and swung at Chuck, but he ducked and countered with a punch that broke the degenerate’s nose in three places. Praise the Lord!” the fundamentalist newsletter Campus Ministry, USA gushed after the 1998 incident at Kent State. “[Another student] came charging at Chuck flaring his arms like a sissy, but one swing from Chuck sent him to the pavement. Hallelujah!”

 Spingola wanted to flex his muscles and spew his hate from the monument, but administrators had ordered him off university property and onto the adjacent public sidewalk. On at least one occasion, he refused and had been arrested. His 2002 lawsuit alleged that the First Amendment entitled him to preach on campus property.

Surely students and administrators could all agree that Spingola should be kept off campus, right? And although it wasn’t true, administrators claimed the consequence of allowing students to rally at the monument against misogynistic and heterosexist campus violence would be opening campus to the violent misogynist and heterosexist Spingola.

“Whatever space is made available we have to make equally available to anyone regardless of their message,” then Dean of Students Terry Hogan told us in the video linked above.

“If an event such as [the 2002 walkout rally] is held at the monument and we don’t act consistently with what we’ve done in the past with the preachers, it kind of ruins our case,” claimed then Associate Director of Baker Center (and Terry’s brother) Tim Hogan, who handled reservations for College Green sites. “For example, I would go out to ask the preachers [to leave campus property] and they would ignore me. We’d call OUPD. They’d ask them to leave. They’d be ignored. And then [the preachers] would be arrested… If they stay and resist the order to disperse, police have arrested them. That’s what we’ve done in the past. We’re being advised that we should stay consistent with that if we want to win our legal case.”

But if letting Spingola and company speak on campus was the price of our rally, many student activists were willing to pay it.

“I would rather sacrifice having to listen to [Spingola] talk to me for like 30 seconds, so that I can be able to say what I want to say, too,” then OU student Sarah Robertson told Terry Hogan and then Vice President of Student Affairs Mike Sostarich at an impromptu meeting in Cutler Hall.

“I feel way less offended by them preaching to us on the sidewalk than [by] us not being able to talk without getting an ultimatum of getting arrested. That’s way more offensive to me,” then OU student Yvette Nepper stressed.

Regardless, the whole issue was a smokescreen. What OU officials told students was patently false, and they knew it. Well-established case law allowed (and still allows) university administrators to make a distinction between, on the one hand, groups and individuals affiliated with the university (such as students, faculty, and staff) and, on the other hand, groups and individuals unaffiliated with the university (such as the street preachers of 2002 –or the prominent white supremacists of today– who aren’t students, faculty or staff), and to then place greater restrictions on members of the latter category when it comes to providing, denying, or otherwise regulating access to university facilities. Furthermore, in 2002, the university already had in place longstanding policies and practices that made such distinctions.

“Clearly there are areas on campus that are available for groups affiliated with the university, and those same areas are not available for groups unaffiliated with the university,” I pointed out to Tim Hogan in the video above. “For instance, you mentioned the Howard Hall site when we spoke yesterday. So my question is, if a distinction can be made at the Howard Hall site between students and non-students, those affiliated with the university and those unaffiliated with it, what’s so special about the monument? Why can’t that same distinction be made there?”

Tim Hogan’s response: “It can be, but it’s not.”

Shortly after our walkout, a court dismissed Spingola’s lawsuit and upheld OU’s right to separately regulate affiliated and unaffiliated entities’ access to campus facilities. It is highly unlikely that a student rally at the monument ever would have jeopardized OU’s case. But much more telling was that even after Spingola’s lawsuit was out of the way, OU continued to ban student protests at the monument.

Because organizers of the 2002 walkout did not want to subject survivors of campus sexual and heterosexist violence to potentially violent arrest at the hands of university police, we had grudgingly agreed to move our rally from the monument to West Portico of Memorial Auditorium. Luckily, the 300-person walkout rally was large enough and attracted enough media attention that, along with the campaign for university reform that followed, we succeeded in forcing OU into compliance with the Clery Act and, according to then Student Senate President Katherine Smith, played an instrumental role in pressuring the administration to agree to Smith’s proposal to set aside space in the planned construction of the “new” Baker Center to create OU’s campus women’s center, which first opened its doors in 2007. But we still believed the monument would have been a better, more visible location for our walkout rally and for many other campus protests.

In the years that followed, student resistance to OU’s outdoor restrictions on speech and assembly continued. In the brick walkway a dozen feet from the monument, in a location then still officially off-limits to student protests, the Class of 2005 inserted a plaque defiantly stating, “College Green has served as a forum for the voices of Ohio University students throughout its history. Whether supporting civil rights, advocating for the abolishment (sic) of women’s curfews, or in protest, students have and will continue to play a vital role in shaping Ohio University.”

After OU again threatened to arrest students for trespassing at the monument in order to disperse an anti-war rally there in the fall of 2006, the OU chapter of Students for a Democratic Society made opposing OU’s limited free speech zones one of its top priorities. In 2007 SDS held two demonstrations at the monument in violation of OU policy and marched into Cutler Hall to demand that all of campus be made a free speech zone.

Undergraduate Student Senate began lobbying administrators to increase the number of outdoor free speech zones, but after Graduate Student Senate stepped in to support SDS’s goal of totally abolishing the restrictions, students finally won. According to then GSS president Dominic Barbato and then SDS organizer Will Klatt (both of whom I interviewed for this column), in Fall 2007 OU administrators agreed to students’ demands to make all outdoor campus property available for students to engage in constitutionally protected speech and assembly, as long as students gave administrators 24 hours advance notice.

Indeed, even current OU policy states, “The unscheduled use of outdoor spaces for the purpose of engaging in constitutionally protected speech shall be permitted provided the space has not already been reserved by another user and that the unscheduled use does not result in disruption as defined [in the policy] below.”

But now, ten years after students triumphed over OU’s outdoor restrictions, administrators have launched a vicious new offensive against student activism indoors, beginning with what appears to be the largest ever mass arrest of students on campus in the university’s entire 213-year history.

(CORRECTION: According to the Ohio University Post, Ohio University police arrested a larger number of students on March 10, 1972 after students occupied ROTC headquarters in Lindley Hall to protest US aggression in Southeast Asia. 77 students were arrested at the 1972 protest, whereas OU arrested 70 students at a protest earlier this year. Thus it now appears that OU’s 2017 mass arrest of students was the largest in 45 years and the second largest ever.)

This February 1, the Ohio University Police Department — acting with the assistance of the Athens Police Department and the Ohio State Highway Patrol– arrested 70 students who had gathered in OU’s student center to peacefully protest the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban and to demand that OU become a sanctuary campus. This stunning attack on the Baker 70 — and by extension, all students — was condemned by OU’s Undergraduate Student Senate, Graduate Student Senate, Faculty Senate and scores of university alumni.

After a resounding courtroom defeat, administrators were forced to drop all charges against the Baker 70. But rather than learning to respect students’ First Amendment rights, administrators followed up in August by doubling down on their commitment to silence students with a new Orwellian “Freedom of Expression” policy that declares, “Demonstrations, rallies, public speech-making, picketing, sit-ins, marches, protests, and similar assemblies are not permitted in the interior spaces of university buildings.”

In trotting out this reprehensible policy, OU’s in-house spin doctors have falsely claimed administrators lost their case against the Baker 70 because there had been no policy regulating protests in the student center. Unfortunately, this deceptive ploy has led many policy critics to mistakenly conclude that administrators have drafted new rules that make it easier for the university to win convictions against arrested student protesters. But as someone who has worked on First Amendment issues at public high schools and universities for the past two decades, I believe OU’s new policy is even more likely to fail in court than were its charges against the Baker 70 — and that OU’s legal department is as aware of this as I am. 

Policy or no policy, OU administrators are legally permitted to place constraints on the time, place and manner of student expression if, and only if, specific evidence shows that such constraints are most likely necessary to stop (or to prevent, based on a reasonable forecast of the impending situation) a specific instance of major disruption of normal university operations, an invasion of the rights of bystanders, or a public safety hazard. The university’s entire case against the Baker 70 and its statements to the press last spring all centered on administrators’ claim that OU’s mass arrest of students was necessary to stop such a disruptive and hazardous situation. However, the university lost its case because an overwhelming body of evidence refuted administrators’ claims of hazard and disruption. Therefore, the February 1 Baker Center sanctuary campus demonstration itself is irrefutable proof that a student protest can occur indoors at OU without creating a situation that meets the standard necessary for administrators to legally suppress student speech and assembly. As a result, OU’s new blanket ban on any and all protests, within any and all university buildings – which has nothing whatsoever to do with the specific circumstances of any particular location or any particular protest – is as blatantly unconstitutional a policy as could be dreamed up by the most ambitious campus despot: namely, policy author and OU General Counsel John Biancamano.

It is precisely because Biancamano knows the law is not on his side that OU’s top (Il)legal counsel has put forward an audacious bluff that, far from being designed to achieve a courtroom victory, is constructed to trick students into thinking administrators have greater legal power than they actually do, and to thereby intimidate and confuse students into silencing themselves — all so that the university won’t end up in court again, where Biancamano knows he would only lose. And as a potential side benefit, the new policy may also fool students into thinking that since the law isn’t on their side, they may just as well engage in truly illegal protest activities, for which the university actually could win criminal convictions.

That Biancamano, as the top attorney of a public institution of higher learning, seems to have dedicated himself to both circumventing the law and miseducating students, all in order to violate students’ constitutional rights and to prevent students from becoming informed, engaged citizens, is something that should give everyone serious pause. OU not only needs to abolish its shameful new Anti-Freedom of Expression policy, it needs to fire Biancamano, whose behavior could not be more at odds with the most fundamental values for which Ohio University claims to stand. Meanwhile, the protest ban’s other signatories, new OU President Duane Nellis and interim Provost David Descutner, both really could use a high school civics lesson.

Thankfully, despite the exceptionally regressive administration currently running OU, today’s OU students are in a much better position than were their predecessors who defeated OU’s outdoor restrictions a decade ago. This time around faculty has come out strongly on the side of students, and students have organized an impressive, ideologically diverse coalition of campus groups to oppose the policy, spanning from the International Socialist Organization on the left all the way over to the College Republicans on the right. So forget the five years it took students to defeat OU’s old outdoor restrictions. Today’s students and their allies have the power to defeat the indoor protest ban in more like five weeks! And they should set their sights higher — on the corrupt university officials responsible for both this policy and the wrongful arrests and civil rights violations of the Baker 70.

“Just keep organizing” was the advice last week from former Graduate Student Senate president Dominic Barbato, now a graduate employee union organizer in Michigan. “The only time I see student activists lose in situations like this is when they fail to organize to leverage their superior numbers and only turn out a handful of people to their protests. Because the superior numbers of students and their allies is the source of students’ strength.”

I agree. That’s why I plan to support today’s OU students in their struggle to make their voices heard by joining the mass rally against OU’s protest ban this Friday, October 20, beginning at the Athens County Courthouse at 5:30pm. If you care about freedom of speech and democracy in these dire political times, it’s absolutely vital that you show up, too.

Defeating OU’s latest attack on progressive activism and student speech rights – and indeed, its lawless authoritarianism and shameful miseducation of all students – isn’t just a campus issue. It is a crucial part of how we keep burgeoning American fascism from taking root in our town.


Damon Krane is a longtime Athens, Ohio-based progressive activist, campus and community organizer, and journalist. He owns and operates Hot Potato Food Truck.

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Local News Reporting the Silver Lining of OU’s Recent Mass Arrest

By Damon Krane
Athens News
Monday, February 27, 2017

Ohio University’s Feb. 1 arrests of the pro-“sanctuary campus” demonstrators dubbed the Baker 70 marked a dramatic change from past university responses to campus activism. Local media coverage of the incident also departed from past practice. The difference is that local reporting has changed for the better.

Thanks to Conor Morris’s reporting for The Athens NEWS and his paper’s one-time collaboration with the New Political’s Austin Linfante, we know that Ohio University Police arrested a greater number of protesters Feb. 1 than were arrested at any demonstration in Athens in over a quarter century, and only slightly more than at any protest of the Vietnam Era. As The Post reported, 77 students were arrested in 1972 after occupying ROTC headquarters in Lindley Hall. Thus the Baker 70 incident appears to be the second largest mass arrest of student activists on campus in OU’s 213-year history.

Furthermore, as Morris reported in a Feb. 1 online article, “The arrests for trespassing are a far cry from a student-led sit-in protest that occurred in the exact same part of Baker Center in 2014. No students were arrested, and they were allowed to stay past Baker Center’s closing time (midnight, at the time).”

OU officials have attempted to portray the Baker 70 arrests as thoroughly unremarkable. Thus by accurately reporting the arrests’ historic nature, local media are directly challenging the authority of OU officials to issue a false narrative. Yet The NEWS’ challenge to authority has been even more direct.

In his Feb. 1 online article, Morris reported, “[OUPD Chief Andrew Powers] said one of the main issues was access to the building’s entrance and exits, although at one point, this reporter observed the protesters clearing a path for people to walk through after being asked to by police.”

And in the Feb. 5 print edition, Morris reported, “By the time the protesters were arrested, the police had cleared the room of all media and onlookers and barred further entry to the room. This reporter was threatened with arrest if he didn’t exit the room, although the officers present at the time refused to say on what grounds.”

Reporting that gives historical context and challenges authority is especially important to our community. Athens is made up of about 20,000 college students and only several thousand permanent residents. As OU graduates are continuously replaced by first-year students, nearly one fifth of our population changes every year. Five years from now the vast majority of faces on Court Street will belong to different people. This high turnover rate means most Athenians lack local knowledge and the time to accumulate it – something that makes students vulnerable to all sorts of predators, from rapists and slumlords to corrupt university and city authorities.

Meanwhile, much of our local reporting is produced by student journalists. So when journalism professors and local media professionals fail to impress upon young reporters the importance of research that situates current events in a broader context of local history, the result is a kind of superficial, amnesiac journalism that reinforces the strength of local predators and the weakness of their prey.

One striking example of this kind of insufficient reporting is an absolute bombshell of a story about administrative culpability for violence against female and LGBT students that local (and statewide) media totally missed not very long ago. Reviewing it now sheds light on how far local reporting has progressed since then and on how little, if at all, OU has progressed in its responses to concerned students striving to make Athens a safer and better place.

After an eight-day period in January 2002 during which three sexual assaults and the homophobic beating of a lesbian student were reported to have occurred on OU’s campus, I (then an undergraduate student) discovered OU administrators for many years had been violating federal legal requirements for informing students and university employees of itemized crime statistics, reporting procedures, prevention programs and survivor support resources.

Speaking Feb. 4, 2002, at a videotaped rally on College Green held after a crowd of about 300 students walked out of class to protest OU’s response to sexual and heterosexist violence, I criticized local media’s failure to cover OU’s violations.

“I wish that the college media would spend less time criticizing people who are trying to address these issues [The Post, OU’s student newspaper, that day had issued an editorial opposing the walkout] and do a little investigative reporting into something called the Clery Act,” I told the crowd before explaining OU’s violations in detail.

The Columbus Dispatch responded by reporting, “And [students] criticized the university for posting old crime statistics on the OU police Web site. A university spokeswoman acknowledged the error and said it has been corrected.”

The Athens NEWS followed suit two days later: “OU is not in compliance with the Clery Act because statistics are only available through 1999, Krane said. (In the Columbus Dispatch on Tuesday, an OU representative said that the oversight had been corrected.)”

Meanwhile, a Feb. 5, 2002 online article for quoted then Dean of Students Terry Hogan responding to my charges by asserting, “OU is doing more than the Clery Act requires.”

A letter I co-wrote published by local papers in early April 2002, further described the administration’s response.

“At an open forum regarding assault prevention on Feb. 10, one student [me] even went as far as to read the text of the Clery Act verbatim to OU administrators, who still continued to deny that OU was in violation. Assistant Director of OUPD Mark Matthews claimed that the Department of Education told him OU did not have to directly notify students of the [comprehensive annual campus security] report [by Oct. 1 of each year, as stated in the act]. Because the DOE is charged with enforcing the act, OU Dean of Students Terry Hogan suggested the agency might have modified the law’s written requirements,” we wrote.

The letter then described an interview I conducted with the Department of Education official responsible for heading up enforcement of the Clery Act.

“[David] Bergeron, chief of Policy and Budget Development for the U.S. Department of Education’s office of Post Secondary Education, confirmed that schools are required to notify all students and employees [of the annual report] in precisely the manner described in the act’s text,” we wrote.

On March 6, 2002, amid an ongoing student campaign, OU finally came into compliance with the Clery Act when it sent emails and postcards to all students and employees, notifying them of the availability of OU’s newly published campus security report more than five months after the Oct. 1, 2001 deadline had passed. The notifications stated, “This information is required by law and is provided by the Ohio University Police Department.”

Then OU simultaneously admitted and denied it had violated the Clery Act.

“University representative Leesa Brown ackowledged OU’s delay in releasing the report this year, but said that the university did comply with the Clery Act,” The Athens NEWS reported on April 1, 2002. “The delay was caused by a change in administration in the OU Police Department and a mix-up over who was putting the report together and getting it out to the public, she explained.”

The Athens News neglected to do its own research to fact-check Brown’s claims, or to even interview student activists who contested her claims for the same article.

However, OU’s response to my subsequent public records request supported students’ assertion that OU was not only late in issuing its 2001 security report but also had failed to properly issue any previous year’s report. From 2002 on, each year’s report took the form of a bound booklet, some 30-40 pages in length, characterized by a consistent design format, which OU provided to me along with a postcard notifying students and employees of the report’s release. However, for 1999, 2000 and 2001, OU did not provide any postcards. Meanwhile, the 2000 “report” was printed on the flipside of an 11″ x 17″ campus map, and the 2001 “report” was contained on the front and back of a single, 8 ½” x 11” sheet of paper. Neither the 2000 or 2001 report contained sufficient information required by law. Finally, OU provided no report of any kind for 1999.

All of this became more troubling in December 2004 when the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that during a three-year period spanning 2001 through 2003, more rapes in residence halls were reported at OU than at any other public post-secondary school in our state. Since OU officials spent nearly half of this time period neglecting to fulfill their legal duties to inform students of crime statistics, reporting procedures, prevention programs and survivor support resources, the Plain Dealer’s report could have proven disastrous for several administrators. But no local journalists took notice, so shameless administrators seized the opportunity to lie and give themselves a pat on the back.

“Relatively speaking, our numbers reflect that we have a well-developed and aggressive system of encouraging students to report these crimes,” then OU Dean of Students Terry Hogan told The Athens NEWS in January 2005.

“One thing we really pride ourselves on here at OU is that we educate our students on sexual assault,” Director of OU Health and Wellness Char Kopchik told The NEWS. “Victims feel comfortable coming forward and reporting crimes.”

Of course, the reality was that OU was neglecting to inform students of reporting procedures as mandated by federal law during the period in question. Had local reporters and editors even looked backed three years in their own publications’ archives, they would have been able to put that together. But they didn’t.

So a letter to the editor published shortly thereafter took things even further.

“As an attorney with a primary focus in representing victims of sexual assault on college campuses, I want to applaud Ohio University for its reporting of sexual assaults and its stance on addressing this pervasive problem,” wrote Amanda A. Farahany of the law firm Barrett & Farahany. (Local media also failed to investigate why the Atlanta, Georgia-based law firm was weighing in on the issue from afar.)

“Only when a college takes the stance that OU has by encouraging reporting, educating students, and creating an environment where victims are not punished and perpetrators are held responsible will this problem be eradicated,” she continued. “OU should not be singled out for its ‘high crime rate,’ but should instead be singled out for its commitment to the safety of its students.”

Thus an absence of solid local reporting not only enabled OU officials to successfully cover up their violations of federal student safety laws at a time of especially high reports of campus violence – it actually helped these corrupt officials exploit the unsafe environment they helped create to advance their own careers. Indeed, the LinkedIn profile of former Assistant Director of OUPD Mark Mathews, whose department bore particular responsibility for OU’s Clery Act violations — and who publicly lied to cover up those violations in 2002– currently lists one of Mathews’ specialties as “Clery Act compliance”!

Fast forward to the present, and whether we’re talking about OU’s cover-up of its Clery Act violations 15-20 years ago or the university’s arrests of 70 peaceful protesters on bogus charges earlier this month, the main takeaways are the same. OU’s upper administration, its police force and their allies have a history of acting to the detriment of students and then blatantly lying about it. Local media can help us hold these people accountable — but only when journalists do the necessary research and have the courage to report the truth. The Athens NEWS’ coverage of the Baker 70 arrests is a commendable example of the kind of coverage the people of Athens deserve. Here’s hoping we see more of it!


-Damon Krane of Athens is formerly a grassroots organizer, Post columnist, Athens News contributor, co-founder of The InterActivist, editor of that magazine from 2005 – 2008, and director of the high school student press rights and independent journalism education project Free Student Press. He currently owns and operates Hot Potato food truck.

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Forget Hitler — Israel’s Prime Minister claims the Holocaust was a Palestinian invention!

By Damon Krane
Blog Post
October 23, 2015


Ever since the end of World War II, top US politicians and pundits have been quick to declare each new enemy head of state “the next Hitler.” Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Manuel Noriega, Hugo Chavez, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have all received this treatment. And while Glenn Beck is hardly the only American conservative to suffer from what Lewis Black hilariously called “Nazi Tourettes,” some of the laughable Hitler comparisons of recent decades have come from Democrats, including Bill Clinton and his Secretary of State Madeliene Albright. As Justin Logan remarked in a surprisingly good 2007 essay for the Cato Institute, “If you live in the United States and want to start a war, the first step is to compare the foreign leader to Adolf Hitler… Hitler seems to be the only historical analogy that Americans understand.”

But leave it to Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the U.S. client state Israel, to up the ante on historical revisionism (and lower the bar for political discourse) even further: Forget “the next Hitler.” In fact, forget Hitler altogether. According to Netanyahu, the Holocaust itself was a Palestinian design!

Essentially reiterating claims he made in a 2012 speech before the Knesset (borrowed from fringe authors whose books were debunked decades ago), Netanyahu this past Tuesday told the World Zionist Congress the following: “Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews. And [Mufti of Jerusalem] Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said, ‘If you expel them, they’ll all come here.’ ‘So what should I do with them?’ he asked. He said, ‘Burn them.’”

Thankfully, a lot of writers are saving me the trouble of stating the obvious. Here’s Zaid Jilani for Alternet:

“This statement is almost too absurd to debunk, but for the record, Haj Amin al-Husseini met Hitler in November 1941. Although the origins of the Final Solution itself have been hotly debated among historians, we do know that by March of that year Hitler was openly talking about a need to make sure the ‘Jewish-Bolshevik elite’ would be killed, as well as ‘all Jews and card-carrying Communists’ in the lands that Germany was taking from the Soviet Union; this order was carried out by Heinrich Himmler, who delivered these instructions to the Einsatzgruppen on March 13th, 1941. The phrase ‘complete solution of the Jewish question’ was first uttered by Nazi leader Hermann Goering who gave the task to SS General Reinhardt Heydrich on July 31st, 1941. The killing centers in Poland were organized under so-called Operation Reinhard, and work on these units began in October 1941, a month before the Mufti visited Jerusalem.”

And from the Washington Post’s William Booth:

“[Netanyahu’s] remarks were intended to underline his contention that the root cause of Palestinian violence is not Israel’s 48-year-old military occupation of the West Bank, the building of Jewish settlements on lands that the Palestinians hope to make part of their future state, or the partial trade and travel blockade of the Gaza Strip, but old and intractable hatred of Jews.”

(Note: Booth’s list might have included, among many other things, Zionists’ expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians from their land when it was seized to create the state of Israel in 1948, and Israel’s refusal of these refugees’ right of return ever since. It might have included that like the 48-year-old occupation of the West Bank, the 48-year-old occupation of Gaza also continues (albeit without Israeli settlers), given that Israel controls Gaza’s borders, maintains a blockade and regularly invades Gaza. But mainstream American acknowledgement of Israeli crimes usually doesn’t go back any further than the start of Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, and it ignores a lot from that point on.)

Or, as Peter Jukes writes for The Independent:

“Of course, Netanyhu’s revisionism has nothing to do with actual history, and everything to do with the political demands of the present… This misuse of history is a desperate gamble to turn the various separate conflicts over land rights, property ownership, access to water and the al Aqsa Mosque, into a binary conflict of good against ultimate Swastika-bearing evil. By making Muslims the original proponents of genocide against the Jews, both revenge and pre-emptive retaliation are justifiable. By claiming that Palestinians were responsible for the Final Solution, Netanyahu can gather all his enemies under single banner of evil, and kill or expel them with moral authority.”

Jukes’s article makes some other good points too, beyond just the novel irony of the jumping off point of it’s title — “Just how bad are Netanyahu’s claims about the Holocaust? If he repeated them in Germany he could be arrested.” The article is worth a read.

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Free Student Press & Classroom Teachers

By Damon Krane
August 15, 2015


Free Student Press never has been very controversial among school administrators. That’s because their opposition to FSP’s work has been nearly unanimous. Teachers, however, are another story. While many teachers have worked to keep students from knowing and exercising their press rights, many others have supported students in the struggle to make their voices heard — and that support for students has included support for Free Student Press.

Back in the day, one teacher took his class on a field trip to FSP’s first ever outreach event. Years later, another snuck me into her classroom without administrators’ knowledge and drew the blinds so I could teach her students about independent publications after their principal had begun censoring the official school newspaper. Now, several public school teachers are among those backing the Kickstarter campaign to revive and expand FSP. (If you care about these issues, I hope you’ll join them & encourage others to do the same!)

The written exchange below — between Grant Brayley, a public school music teacher, and Devin Aeh, FSP alum and publisher of the independent students publication Lockdown, and which occurred after the Southeast Ohio chapter of the ACLU honored Devin and co-publishers Mike Lannan and Jacob Thomas — is a great illustration of this controversy, even if it is mostly an account of teachers being supportive.



Another local teacher, Doug Brooks, chimed in to say, “I wholeheartedly agree with Grant Brayley’s assessment of the ‘crap’ that educators have to put up with.” However, Brooks added the following…

“One thing that I might disagree with Mr. Brayley on is the encouragement of our students to express themselves. I have learned, almost tragically, that far more damaging to our societal structure (read future) than low pay, lack of funding, and public confidence, is not teaching our young people to think for themselves and to express themselves. It is not giving them the skills that they need to survive.”

You can read Brooks’ full letter here.

To hear more from Devin and her classmates about Free Student Press and the experience of producing Lockdown, watch the documentary Student Publishing, Empowering Education & Democracy below.


One final note on teacher support for uncensored student expression: it’s not so easy. Not only can a supportive teacher puts his or her job at risk when that teacher goes up against hostile administrators, but sadly, teacher support can even open the door to censorship. In most states, it is legal for school officials to censor student speech within school-sponsored productions. And some courts have determined that a teacher’s assistance to an independent student publications is equivalent to the very school sponsorship that permits administrators to censor.

Furthermore, teenage students are inclined to see any adult speaking to them at school as a representative of a largely oppressive school system and adult society. That’s not only true for well-meaning teachers, but also for members of Free Student Press. In addition to outreach events held outside school, Free Student Press has been invited into classrooms on a few occasions, including the one I mentioned above. But only the events we’ve held with students outside of school have resulted in ongoing contact with students and students’ creation of independent publications. I think that’s another indication of just how hard our school system has made it for teachers to do work like this.

As I’m sure most teachers would agree, being a good teacher is an uphill battle. But classroom teachers who care about student empowerment and those of us who do FSP’s work outside of the classroom are natural allies.

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Bringing Unschooling to School

A conversation with Free Student Press founder Damon Krane

By Alex Walker
August 12, 2015
August 15, 2015
Alternatives to School
August 15, 2015
Conscious Consumer Network
August 16, 2015
Psychology Today
August 16, 2015


Alex Walker

My son is only three years old, but even before he was born I was determined to raise him in a less conventional way. I knew homeschooling – or more specifically, unschooling – would probably be part of that design.

Like so many people, my unconventional view of education is bound up with my attraction to a less mainstream lifestyle. Part of me longs to turn on my heel, leave all the worldly nonsense I detest about society in the dust, and carry out life naturally and as I see fit – off-grid, both figuratively and literally.

A big part of the society I’d like to leave behind is its school system. I want to keep my son out of the depressing feedback loop of the 19th century factory-style education system that 1990 New York City Teacher of the Year and unschooling advocate John Taylor Gatto aptly called “instruments of the scientific management of a mass population”. In the process of becoming an adult, I want my son to have an experience that is itself significant, and not a contrived training for what is expected of him as an adult. I want him to have the guidance and resources available to become an independently minded person who can make empowered decisions for himself rather than having an authority of one kind or another tell him what he should be concerned about in both his early education and life in general.

Yet I face an ethical impasse. To renounce the society you are born into comes with a price, and I find myself in a very privileged situation to even be considering homeschooling my son, or to fancy myself as some sort of future off-grid pioneer. As a white, middle class, college-educated American, I have both financial and social freedom to make relatively bold decisions in my life. And yet I am coming to acknowledge that the privilege I hold exists because of the very system I want to reject.

Furthermore, caring about my son means caring about the larger world he’ll live in and the society he’ll have to negotiate. Being an off-grid unschooler won’t make that world go away. Whatever protective buffers I create for my family, we will always be umbilically linked to our larger world. Thus while I plan to homeschool/unschool my son, I also want to positively affect the lives of all those students whose educational experiences are curtailed by public schools – institutions, which, despite my objections to them, I believe are necessary in our current social framework.

While struggling with these issues, I was contacted by an old acquaintance with an exciting plan to create for public high school students the very kinds of educational experiences I want for my son. His ideas for intervening in public schools called into question my formerly black and white reasoning about education in America having to be a decision between abdication and assimilation.

Damon Krane has been an activist, journalist, and grassroots social justice organizer for the better part of twenty years. His initiative, Free Student Press, amounts to an utter infiltration of independent thought within high schools, giving students the power to challenge norms, confront authoritarianism, and engage in constructive dialogue, while discovering and exercising their First Amendment rights to distribute independently produced publications that are often illegally inhibited by schools officials. By developing self-confidence and learning to work together, he believes that students can become empowered to build a better world.

Ironically, I know Damon Krane because we attended the same public high school. Krane got his start in journalism and community organization with an independent, public access student zine he created during our senior year of high school. That soon led him and another one of my former classmates to create Free Student Press, which Krane piloted in Ohio from 1999 through 2006.

Recently, Krane launched a Kickstarter campaign to revive and dramatically expand Free Student Press – first bringing it to high school students in four southern states, and then taking the project nationwide. Already, his vision has been lauded by such prominent educators, authors and activists as Ira Shor, a leading exponent of critical pedagogy and colleague of the late radical Brazilian educator Paulo Freire; the renowned linguist, political analyst and prolific anarchist social commentator Noam Chomsky; the prominent education reformer and former Weather Underground activist Bill Ayers; and Dawson Barrett, author of the newly released book Teenage Rebels: Successful High School Activists from the Little Rock 9 to the Class of Tomorrow.

I recently spoke with Krane about Free Student Press and what relevance it might have to folks interested in homeschooling and unschooling.

Damon Krane. Photo by Ece Ucoluk Krane

So what is Free Student Press and why is it relevant to people interested in homseschooling and unschooling?

Homeschooling and unschooling have a lot of appeal to parents who believe children and adolescents deserve more freedom to pursue their own curiosities and creative impulses than conventional schools allow. Free Student Press is based on the same conviction. But instead of seeking to create totally separate alternatives to our public schools, or trying to reform national school policy from the top-down, Free Student Press takes unschooling to school.

What exactly do you mean by that?

FSP starts from the assumption that teenagers don’t need anyone else telling them what to do. What they need are more meaningful opportunities to express themselves, to make sense of their world, and to have an impact on that world. So FSP offers teenagers some very practical tools. The first tool is the knowledge schools typically hide from students about their First Amendment rights to distribute independent student publications at school.

More commonly known as underground newspapers or zines, these publications are produced by students, outside of school, and without using school resources. But then students can bring these publications to school and pass them out to their classmates on school grounds, during school hours. School officials can’t control the content, they can’t punish students for writing things school officials don’t like, and in the overwhelming majority of cases school officials cannot legally prevent students from distributing independent student publications at school.

Within one of these publications, students can create for themselves a unique forum for public dialogue among their peers that is anchored to their experiences as students within their schools, and as young people within their communities. From my experience with these publications, I’ve learned that whatever disagreements students may have with one another, they tend to all want a place to discuss what they care about. So students learn how to manage this forum, because they’re committed to keeping it. They learn how to communicate themselves better, because that’s necessary to change minds and have an impact. They learn about their peers and others’ perspectives, and the situation forces them to contend with others’ arguments. Finally, if school officials attempt to illegally censor a publication – as they often do – students get to learn how to defeat corrupt people in positions of power and authority through grassroots organizing.

Along the way, FSP is there as a resource for the students. We’re not there to tell students what to do, but to respond to their questions and sometimes ask some of our own and offer advice. But it’s up to students whether they want to take that advice. Empowering the students to act for themselves is always the goal.

The entire experience teaches some big lessons that stick with students long after graduation. And the best part of FSP’s approach is that we don’t have to wait until we’ve changed our schools, or until we’ve built better large scale alternatives. Instead, we can turn precisely what’s wrong with our schools into what educators like to call a “teachable moment” – or, more precisely, a whole series of such “moments” that turn disempowering schools into an opportunity for seriously empowering education – the kind of empowering education that not only improves young peoples’ lives, but which also dramatically increases Americans’ capacity to create a freer, more just society.


Let’s back up a bit and talk about students’ legal rights to do this. Are student press rights just a matter of the First Amendment, or of court decisions and/or other legislation?

The First Amendment was a concession early American elites granted in order to get the Constitution ratified. It really didn’t mean anything in practice until mass movements of ordinary people made it mean something – and that’s true for student press rights, too.

Back in the mid 1960s, a group of families in Des Moines, Iowa decided to express their opposition to the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands. Some of their kids wore these armbands to school, for which the children were threatened with violence by school officials and then promptly kicked out of school. The families and allied individuals and organizations fought back, and eventually this resulted in the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. The Tinker decision did several things, but most important for FSP it established the right of public high school students to distribute independent student publications at school.

Mary Beth and John Tinker.

Are there any legal limits placed on what students can do with these publications?

Independent student publishers and journalists are still bound by the same laws as professional journalists, publishers and everybody else when it comes to stuff like libel, invasion of privacy, obscenity, copyright infringement, and so on. But there is only one additional legal restriction that applies to independent student publishers at public schools.

School officials may only attempt to prevent distribution of an independent student publication if they can show there is a very high probability that the either the contents of the publication or the manner of its distribution would cause a severe disruption of official school proceedings or invade the rights of others. What 46 years of case law following Tinker has made clear is that it is extremely difficult for school officials to meet this standard.

If students have had this right since 1969, why am I just hearing about it now?

It’s not just you. Practically everyone is unaware of this.

For nearly a half century since Tinker, illegal censorship has continued to run rampant in our schools, as documented by groups including the Commission of Inquiry into High School Journalism, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Student Press Law Center. But the many reported cases of illegal censorship are just the tip of the iceberg. They don’t tell us about all the kids who were lied to about their rights at school, or simply not informed, or students who never reported illegal censorship because they didn’t know it was illegal.

I first got involved in this work during our senior year of high school when three sophomores created a little zine they called Hide and Go Speak. As soon as the students passed out their first issue, they were called down to the principal’s office and told they could not hand out a student publication at school unless they first allowed the principal to edit its contents. Since they had not done so, they were all punished with several after school detentions, and that was the end of Hide and Go Speak.

Now, rights or no rights, I liked what those kids were trying to do. So I went ahead and organized another student publication called Free Head, and it had a tremendously positive and transformative impact on my life. But it wasn’t until a couple years after high school that I learned our principal had simply lied to the creators of Hide and Go Speak and had illegally violated their rights by punishing these kids and banning their zine.

Free Head Issue 1

Why did your own high school experience of producing an independent student publication have such a big impact on you?

It taught me that people can work together very productively without any need for a central authority to dictate their course. It also taught me that a forum for public dialogue can cause a community to emerge where none had existed before. Suddenly, students outside of my own social circle, who for years had just been scenery in the hallways to me, were real people with their own thoughts and ideas. And as you might imagine, the intrinsic motivation to communicate myself made me a better writer than years of writing papers on random topics assigned by my teachers.

But Free Head wasn’t just about commentary or indie news reporting, it was about students expressing themselves any way they could on paper. We published poetry and other creative writing, along with visual art – all of which gave budding young artists an opportunity to share their work with a larger audience, often for the first time.

Two aspects of Free Head’s internal structure greatly amplified all of these effects, and also helped protect us from censorship. First, Free Head was public access. We pretty much published whatever students submitted. Second, we governed Free Head through a process of direct democracy. Decisions that affected the magazine as a whole were made democratically at meetings open to any interested student. And with so many students from different cliques having such a voice in the publication, our broad base of support made it harder for administrators to try to shut us down.

Free Student Press supports independent student publishers regardless of whether they choose to adopt a public access format and democratic management, but we do discuss the benefits of these things with students.

And how did Free Head lead to Free Student Press?

After learning about student press rights a couple years after I graduated high school, I partnered with Lisa O’Keefe, a former classmate of ours who also worked on Free Head. And as 19-year-olds, Lisa and I created Free Student Press and launched it in Athens County, Ohio at the invitation of a group of progressive educators at the Institute for Democracy in Education.

What happened when you first put the idea of Free Student Press into practice?

Within three weeks of our first outreach event, the very first group of high school students Lisa and I worked with produced a publication called Lockdown. On page one of their first issue, Lockdown’s creators accurately explained their First Amendment press rights and the Tinker decision. The students even included a supportive quote issued to them from Mike Hiestand, an attorney with the Student Press Law Center, a national student press advocacy group.

LockDown 1

And how did the school respond to Lockdown?

The principal threatened to suspend all of the students involved if “anything like this ever turns up again.” Then he informed the family of Lockdown’s lead publisher, Devin Aeh Canary, that a suspension would likely prevent her from becoming class valedictorian. Later, school authorities falsely accused the students of promoting drugs and violence through their publication, and local police were called upon to illegally break up a meeting about the paper the students were trying to hold at a public park. The superintendent, meanwhile, issued a press release declaring members of FSP irresponsible outside agitators who had made children feel unsafe at school, and he pressured officials at Ohio University (where I was an undergraduate education major) to encourage me to stop FSP’s work.

The conflict was pretty intense, and it lasted for nearly four months. But with FSP’s support the students mobilized so much community support that they completely defeated both their school administration and local police. The students kept publishing Lockdown, and the school’s principal resigned. FSP went on to work with more high school students and independent publications in the years that followed. However, officials at all of the five districts we worked with remained opposed to teaching students their press rights, publicly refusing to include accurate information in their student handbooks after FSP audited the handbooks a few years after the Lockdown controversy.

Vimeo Cover Photo_Long_SMALL

Why do you think censorship and deception about First Amendment rights are so common in public schools?

It’s a problem of institutional design. Public schools are supposed to be how we teach Americans constitutional rights essential to American democracy, but our schools rarely carry out that mission for the same reason the U.S. isn’t all that democratic. Just as calling a shopping cart an airplane won’t make it fly, the design of our public schools is at odds with the schools’ official mission.

Opposition to student press rights is an inevitable consequence of schools being designed to carry out what Paulo Freire called the banking concept of education. Within the banking concept, students are considered empty containers for a teacher to fill up with deposits of whatever information authorities have deemed valuable.

The first problem with the banking concept is that from the time we’re born, we human beings have our own curiosities and creative impulses. We want to figure out and consciously shape both ourselves and our world. Anyone who has observed young children knows this is what animates them – at least before children are subjected to school. Unfortunately, in the banking concept, these aspects of human nature are the enemy. They’ve got to be beaten down and suppressed so that students can be filled up with whatever is on any given day’s lesson plan.

Within the banking concept, Freire wrote, “the scope of action allowed to the student extends only as far as receiving, filing and storing the deposits… but in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away…” Similarly, the American philosopher John Dewey asked, “What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win the ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul…?”

Now, consider the second problem of the banking concept – it doesn’t work. With reference to a vessel-of-water metaphor for education (essentially the same as Freire’s banking concept), Noam Chomsky likes to point out that we human beings are pretty leaky vessels when it comes to things we don’t care about. Everybody has had the experience of memorizing information for a test, acing the test, and then immediately forgetting what it was we memorized.


So if the banking concept denies the humanity of students and doesn’t succeed in getting students to retain much information, why is it the guiding principle of our schools?

The banking concept isn’t any good when it comes to storing deposits, but it does a great job of filing the people away. At school, particular subject matter comes and goes, but for a dozen years some lessons remain constant: What is important is what the people in charge say is important. You are rewarded to the extent that you please the people in charge. Thus you learn to accept alienated labor as your fate in life. This is extremely beneficial to economic and political elites whose wealth and power is derived from a workforce and citizenry that is apathetic, compliant, atomized and demoralized. And in the U.S., it’s those elites who create public policy and shape our society’s defining institutions.

In Tinker, the Supreme Court declared that authoritarian schools are not compatible with American civil liberties and democratic ideals. As the Court put it, “In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism.” But the reason most school officials have failed to heed the Court’s ruling is that our schools are indeed enclaves of totalitarianism. The banking concept is nothing if not totalitarian. It’s all about controlling thought and behavior from above under the totally false pretext of getting students to retain useful information. And you maintain that system by silencing students’ voices and keeping them powerless. Denying students their legal press rights is just one predictable result – but one that’s obvious and illegal.

What about teachers? Why would they go along with what you’ve claimed about our schools?

A lot of teachers do their best to not go along with it. I could tell you plenty of stories about that, and so could the students I’ve worked with. Teachers have always been among FSP’s biggest supporters and many are backing the current FSP campaign.

But regardless of a public school teacher’s own educational philosophy, it is nearly impossible for a teacher to do anything but the banking concept when the student to teacher ratio is 30 or 40 to 1 and schooling is all about getting kids to memorize what they need to pass high stakes proficiency tests. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are some of the most extreme versions of the banking concept ever forced on teachers. Combined with other approaches to de-funding and destroying public education – which, predominantly in communities of color, also include replacing school boards elected by local communities with boards appointed by the city mayor – these reforms are part of the largely bi-partisan, neoliberal agenda to reduce the function of everything in life to a source of corporate profit.


Don’t the American Civil Liberties Union and the Student Press Law Center already do the work of Free Student Press?

No. I love the ACLU and SPLC. FSP always puts students in touch with these groups, and we use some of their educational materials, too. Our work compliments theirs, and their work compliments ours. But neither the ACLU nor the SPLC focuses on independent student publishing as a means of doing ongoing empowering education with students – something I think is absolutely necessary if constitutional press rights are really going to mean something for more than a miniscule fraction of American students. Also, while the ACLU and SPLC primarily fight censorship in the courts and state legislatures, FSP empowers students to fight censorship more directly for themselves through grassroots community organizing. Not only does this impart valuable and lasting skills to students, it often defeats censorship faster – as was the case with Lockdown. That’s important because the courts move slowly, and high school doesn’t last forever.

The internet and social media seem to be such important and revolutionary tools in journalism and the exchange of ideas. What advantage over digital means do you see independent student print media having?

The internet and social media have a hugely positive effect on FSP’s work, but when it comes to independent student publications print is still a necessary starting point.

Facebook is good for staying in touch with pre-existing friends, Twitter is good for sharing pithy remarks with people you may or may not know, and the internet gives you free access to lots of different communication from all over the world – including communication that isn’t controlled by big corporate media conglomerates. But if all these digital media allow teenagers to think more globally, then an independent print medium is still what allows teenagers to act locally.

That’s because independent student print media are anchored to a very specific, and very significant, social context – one that’s not as small as students’ own circle of friends, and one that’s not as big, atomized and impersonal as the world at large. And it’s a context that is physical in nature, not virtual. Most social life, and most social change, still happens in the physical world. And it takes a tangible, physical medium to get into the tangible, physically located social context of teenagers’ shared lives as students at school.

Just the simple act of one student handing a tangible print publication to another student in the real world begins to provide a basis for real-world organizing. Not the kind of “organizing” that simply gets a bunch of people to show up at the same time and place for a big demonstration – as the internet and social media are great for facilitating, but the kind that brings people together in the physical world and enables them to share experiences and ideas, to reflect with one another, and to discuss, debate, decide upon and implement strategic collective actions.

But you said the digital age has its advantages too, right?

Absolutely. With tangible print publications anchored to the physically located social context of a school, the digital age then presents wonderful opportunities to strengthen and expand FSP’s work. First, there’s some evidence that the more young people use social media, the more supportive they are of the First Amendment. Second, the internet and social media can really amplify this work.

Not only can print publications have online versions that can be updated more frequently, be more intertextual via hyperlinks, and allow for even more dialogue via reader comment sections, but the internet can allow creators of student publications at different schools to more easily interact with one another. Just as one publication allows students to interact and support one another across the boundaries of social cliques that separate students within a single school, the internet can enable a network of such publications at different schools that transcends the more substantial barriers of racism and economic inequality that have so greatly segregated American communities.

Do you foresee any difficulty in persuading high school students, who are so entrenched in screen culture, about the virtues of paper publications?

If it’s an obstacle, there have always been bigger ones. Never mind paper being old school – the entire experience FSP offers is so foreign to most American students that most don’t get the abstract concepts at first. Typically, a handful of kids get it immediately, and once they create a publication – particularly a public access one – then the rest of their peers get it and the whole experience blossoms. But it’s finding that initial group of more receptive students that has always been a challenge.

Members of Free Student Press and students from Athens and Nelsonville-York high schools, November 1999.

You worked through FSP from 1999 through 2006 with students in Southeast Ohio. Now you’re trying to launch FSP in four Southern states over the next two years, and then take FSP nationwide. Tell me more about that plan.

If the Kickstarter campaign reaches its goal of $25,000 by August 24, then I’ll begin traveling to several college towns in Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina. In each town, I’ll recruit a team of college student activist-volunteers to assist me with outreach and working with the high school students in their area, just as Lisa and I did when we were undergraduate students. And just as Jalen Hutchinson at the Institute for Democracy in Education mentored Lisa and I in democratic and critical pedagogy, I’ll do the same for FSP’s college student teams, and also teach them about grassroots organizing and participatory democratic organizational models.

From there, I’ll travel from town to town, holding two separate weekly meetings in each town – one with the local FSP team, and one with the local FSP team and the local high school students. In the beginning, I’ll be leading FSP’s work with each group of high school students. But as the skills of the local team members become more advanced, they’ll gradually take over from me, freeing me up to launch FSP in additional towns.

In the meantime, I’ll try to facilitate online networking between the different student publications, and I’ll help the students access the additional resources that the ACLU and SPLC can provide.

Finally, I’ll be chronicling FSP’s work in a book. After this new two-year phase is completed, I’ll get the book published, and use it to try to convince major funders and national organizations to expand FSP all across the country.

What about students at private schools? Does private funding nullify the First Amendment rights of the students.

Yes, it does. Just as we can picket on the sidewalk along Main Street but not at the mall, the First Amendment is all about limiting the power of the government over its citizens, not limiting the power of private corporations over us.

The only quasi-exception I know of is California’s Leonard Law, a state law that provides students at California’s private high schools, colleges and universities with press rights equivalent to the First Amendment rights of public school students.

Of course, progressive private school administrators anywhere can choose to give independent student journalists the same leeway the First Amendment gives students at public schools, but this is totally at the discretion of administrators. Rights, on the other hand, are supposed to mean something whether the people in charge like it or not. That’s part of the reason school privatization threatens student expression and empowerment.

But while private school students don’t have the right to distribute independent publications at their schools, they can contribute to publications produced by public school students and distributed in public schools, and they can attend FSP meetings to learn about all of this and interact with independent student journalists from public schools.

Finally, private school students could try to distribute independent publications simply through the power of their own grassroots organizing and community support, without any legal rights to support them, but this would be extremely difficult – in part because it’s easier for private schools to expel students.

I can see this being something that homeschooled teenagers would enjoy and benefit from being a part of. And I would certainly encourage my son to someday become involved in such projects if he were interested. Do you foresee FSP collaborating with and reaching out to kids who are not educated at school, but who want to learn about their rights and how to organize and engage in a more meaningful dialogue within their communities?

If homeschoolers are looking for a way to engage and learn with their public school peers and to participate in something that gives homeschoolers a stronger voice in their communities, then this is one great way to do it. Homeschooled teenagers can participate in the same way I described private school students participating. But if homeschoolers already have had freer and more empowering experiences outside of conventional schools, then I’d expect public school students would be especially interested to know these homeschoolers, and such relationships would be mutually beneficial.

Ultimately, this is stuff that matters to all of us. Whether we’re teenagers or senior citizens, whether or not we have kids – whether, if we do have kids, we send them to public school, private school, or homeschool them – it’s still our society. What happens at public schools has a huge impact on our society, and therefore affects all of our lives.


How can people support this work?

The Kickstarter campaign needs to reach its goal by August 24, so I encourage everyone who supports this work to donate immediately and to tell all their colleagues, friends and family to do the same. This only works if a lot of us pitch in. But if this campaign succeeds, its impact will be tremendous.


Alex Walker is a stay-at-home mother to a three-year-old son. Formerly a figurative artist and portrait painter, Alex is fascinated by sustainable architecture, homeschooling, gardening, and anything involving creative design. She is following her intention of learning more about human rights and progressive values and movements, as well as becoming a practitioner of ecological living. She lives with her son and husband in Littleton, Colorado and is thoroughly enjoying what the state has to offer.

Damon Krane is co-founder and director of Free Student Press. He has worked as a news reporter, opinion columnist, magazine editor, communications director, non-profit director, grassroots organizer and activist, journalism educator, and business manager. Much of his writing is archived at He is also a visual artist, specializing in black and white pencil portraits of people and pets at He lives with his wife in Atlanta, Georgia.


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Ohio University Professor Jalen Hutchinson joins me in discussing some of the underlying ideas of Free Student Press

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“Meme-orable” Quotes About Free Student Press — Please Download & Share!

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Check out Dawson’s book, current speaking tour and related resources here!
To Donate, visit FSP on Kickstarter!


To Donate, visit FSP on Kickstarter!


To Donate, visit FSP on Kickstarter!


To Donate, visit FSP on Kickstarter!


To Donate, visit FSP on Kickstarter!

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