Students unlock speech rights

By Jennifer Hinkle
February 3, 2000
The Post (Athens, Ohio): front page

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When the dismissal bell rings tomorrow at Nelsonville-York High School some students might be excited about more than the weekend. The second edition of the Lockdown, an independent student newspaper, will be distributed tomorrow.

The Lockdown has been considered controversial by some area residents and students since the first edition was published in October.

In a Nov. 3 articles of The Post, Superintendent Thomas Gumpf said the Lockdown caused rumors of extreme student violence in the Nelsonville-York schools, resulting in fear of student aggression and excessive absenteeism.

In the same article, school officials said that any student involved in a second edition of the newspaper would be suspended.

But the student publishers decided to distribute it anyway, said Devin Aeh, a Nelsonville-York senior who helped start the independent newspaper.

She plans to pass out the newspaper on privately owned property across the street from the high school. Aeh said she thinks handing it out off school property will help the students involved stay out of trouble.

“I think (the school administrators know they probably can’t do anything since it’s on private property,” she said.

Gumpf declined to comment on the issue yesterday.

But the students cannot be punished for creating another edition of Lockdown and are protected by the First Amendment, said Raymond Vasvari, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. Vasvari is also Aeh’s lawyer.

Vasvari said the school administrators were legally wrong to threaten the students with suspension.

“The people who have done something illegal are the administrators threatening the students who are practicing their constitutional rights,” he said.

Attorney Michael Nolan, who represents the Nelsonville-York Board of Education, also declined to comment.

Although the first edition of the Lockdown protested certain school policies and contained explicit language, Aeh describes the second edition as “milder,” in terms of its language. She also said it includes more poetry.

“Some of the kids saw the controversy that the last one caused,” she said. “I think maybe some of them realized that if it were a little calmer we would get more support from parents.”

But to Kimberlee Smith another Lockdown is cause for action. Last winter, Smith kept her kindergarten son home from school after rumors began about student violence.

“I don’t think there should be any tolerance for an activity that could entice a threat to happen,” she said. “If they got what they wanted the first time, why publish a second?”

But Free Student Press supports the newspaper and the students. FSP, a group made up of college and high school student members, offers advice, reviews articles and discusses students’ rights as journalists, said FSP member Damon Krane.

“I think it’s ridiculous that school administrators forced them to distribute the paper off school property,” he said.

Vasvari equates the school’s response with an apparent decline of student rights since last year’s shooting at Columbine High School.

He attributes this trend to fears of school violence that stem from the Columbine killings. Vasvari said he wants it to stop and will defend Aeh and her peers as long as they need him.

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