By The Post (Athens, Ohio) editorial board
November 4, 1999
Two trains are about to collide inside Nelsonville-York High School. A group of frustrated students ride one train. They question authority and school policies through an underground newspaper, The Lockdown.
Some parents, administrators and school board members ride the other train, fearing hysteria might spread throughout the district because of The Lockdown.
Both sides are extremely adamant about their cause, but their emotions have clouded the real issues facing students, parents and educators. Students wrote the articles, compiled the paper (outside of school) and distributed it in school last month. It criticized officials and policies, such as a backpack ban, requirements to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and mandatory attendance at pep rallies.
Generally, the students’ criticisms are well-written and thought-provoking. These students have serious concerns, and we applaud their maturity in questioning authority.
The Lockdown offers an excellent avenue for a student’s free expression and highlights the candid opinions of students. It is not bound by the same rules as a school-sponsored newspaper. Its articles and criticisms are similar to conversations students probably have during lunch or between classes.
But this free expression has a high cost – officials banned The Lockdown and threatened to suspend students who produce a second issue. Officials and parents wrongly claim the newspaper is offensive and can invoke violence.
The U.S. Supreme Court has granted authority to public school officials to ban an underground student publication. According to the Court, officials must determine the material to be profane, defamatory or commercial before they can ban it.
[Editor’s note, 2/16/13 – It may be unwise for me to avert the reader’s attention from an editorial which publicizes and supports some of my own organizing work. However, I feel compelled to point out that every factual statement in the previous paragraph is false. I will briefly explain why before turning to the more important issue of what makes these inaccuracies so unfortunate and also so telling.
The Supreme Court’s 1969 ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, which the court consistently reaffirmed on multiple occasions during the 30 years leading up to this 1999 editorial, grants public school officials authority to ban distribution of an independent student publication if school officials can 1) demonstrate that either the publications’ contents or the manner of its distribution would most likely lead directly to a significant disruption of ordinary school proceedings, or 2) show that the publication invaded the rights of others (i.e. met the legal standards for obscenity, libel, invasion of privacy, or violation of copyright law). Furthermore while it is unclear what The Post’s editorial board means by “commercial,” the court has ruled that students may charge money for copies of their independent publications.
Obviously, such substantial inaccuracy mars an otherwise excellent piece – one that is unusually thoughtful and well-written for The Post, and indeed good by any newspaper’s standards. More importantly, however, at the time this editorial was written its authors had not only obtained high school diplomas, they were at least halfway to receiving their Bachelor’s degrees from one of the highest ranked journalism schools in the U.S. Yet they had apparently been taught nothing – at least nothing accurate – about the legal rights of student journalists.
Eight years after publication of this editorial, a similar incident arose — with a later generation of Ohio University journalism majors at The Post demonstrating an even more basic misunderstanding of the First Amendment. (See “First amendment doesn’t protect idiots and racists from criticism,” Athens News, 9/27/07, “Can’t touch this: US constitution includes freedom of speech to arouse discomfort,” The Post, 9/24/07, “Latino group discusses conflict with Ohio University newspaper,” The InterActivist, October 2007, and additional links contained within the latter piece and its epilogue.)
The Post is very much a product of Ohio University and the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. OU pays the salary of The Post’s longtime business manager and provides The Post with free office space and equipment. Not only is the newspaper staffed by journalism students, but journalism faculty have long served on its publishing board. Yet in both of these cases no faculty member from the prestigious E.W. Scripps School of Journalism stepped in to clear up the public confusion their students had created regarding the First Amendment — which is not only the legal foundation of American journalism but also the most basic of civil liberties enjoyed by U.S. citizens.
I believe the each of the dozens of Scripps faculty had an ethical and professional responsibility, not to attempt to take editorial control away from their confused students, but to properly educate their students and the wider reading public (particularly given most Post readers are also OU students). Faculty should have then encouraged their students to print corrections for the sake of additional students’ educations and as a matter of journalistic integrity. Alternatively, any one of these professors could have simply submitted a piece to The Post correcting and clarifying the Post’s published inaccuracies. Unfortunately, no journalism professors appear to have done any of this in either of these situations. (Instead, in 2007 this responsibility fell to Athens News editor Terry Smith.) If this is because professors themselves are ignorant of these matters, then they have no business teaching journalism. The same is true if these professors cannot bother to read their current students’ published work so that professors may assess the success or failure of their teaching.
I know several excellent journalists with degrees from Scripps. I am doubtful, however, that Scripps deserves much of the credit.
Now… back to The Post’s editorial. As I said, the rest of it is quite good.]
But officials are misusing their power. These students are passionate, and their voices must not be silenced because of a few swear words, accusations and sophomoric jokes.
One week after The Lockdown was distributed, rumors of possible violence circulated. The rumors might have stemmed from an article about disdain for pep rallies.
“I don’t like the idea that I have to go down, taking time out of a class that I would rather be in, and listen to people blab crap about how they will finally win a game,” a student writes in one article.
Somehow this article inspired a rumor that a Columbine-like shooting spree would occur at the next pep rally, but rumors can start in any school. Officials cannot place the blame for these rumors solely on a group of students who exercise their constitutional right of freedom of the press.
Administrators and parents must look beyond their apparent tunnel vision. We encourage their enforcement of school safety, but we scorn their manner of ignoring The Lockdown’s theme – students believing adults do not listen to them.
Students claim they previously had petitioned administrators to re-evaluate school policies, but administrators ignored them. They logically fought back with The Lockdown.
Banning the paper only furthers the animosity between students and administrators. Parents and administrators must regard The Lockdown as a necessary forum that deserves consideration.
The Lockdown is a learning experience in social protest. Students must have the right to criticize the school, but also must realize swear words and immature accusations have the ability to derail their arguments.