Former student litigant still bristles at school censorship

Friday, July 8, 2011

Throughout history some students and their parents have had the courage to challenge school officials over the denial of First Amendment freedoms in school. Often these students and their families have endured social ostracism, death threats and other community opposition for their actions.

In 1968, Josh Mamis was one of those students. As an 11-year-old at Intermediate School 44 in New York City, Mamis circulated a petition calling for the ouster of his school principal, Saris Cohen.

Mamis gathered signatures of more than 120 fellow students at the Manhattan school, knowing that he had a right “to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” But Cohen had other ideas after learning of Mamis’ efforts.

“The controversy over the petition occurred several months after a controversy over a teachers’ strike,” Mamis told the First Amendment Center Online. “Another kid took a copy of the petition to the principal, who didn’t like it very much. It should have been a teaching moment.”

Instead of a teaching moment, it became an exercise of censorial power. Cohen told Bill Kovach of The New York Times that Mamis’ petition was “a silly tempest in a teapot.” Cohen ordered Mamis to desist from any further petitioning and told him he did not have the right to engage in such conduct.

Mamis and his parents thought otherwise and went to federal court to prove their point with legal assistance from the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union. The lawsuit, which was filed in December 1968, never led to a court decision.

“We settled the case out of court,” Mamis recalled. “The Board of Education acknowledged that constitutional rights applied to students. The suit was never about money; it was about an important principle that students have First Amendment free-speech rights.”

Around that time, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that public school students possessed First Amendment rights in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969). In Tinker, the Court ruled that public school students in Iowa had a right to wear black peace armbands to school because the armbands did not cause a substantial disruption of school activities.

Mamis says that his family suffered a bit during the legal imbroglio. We “received threatening phone calls regularly after the lawsuit,” he said.

The lessons from the lawsuit and the importance of First Amendment freedoms stayed with Mamis, who became a journalist. Initially, he ventured into the field as a way to pursue his love of music. “I began my career in journalism covering rock ’n’ roll,” he says. “I also came from a radical household and my brother had started an underground newspaper when he was in school. I discovered through him that writing about music meant I could get free records and concert tickets.”

He later wrote for the music magazines Performance and Zoo World. Years later he moved from music into covering political and other social issues. For the past 18 years, he has worked as the publisher and editor of alternative news weeklies in Connecticut.

His own experience with censorship as a student in the late 1960s still affects Mamis and has inspired a lifelong mission to expose censorship in schools. “Anytime I hear that students’ rights are being restricted, I become outraged,” Mamis says. “In my career as a journalist and editor, I’ve often written or worked on stories about student censorship issues.”

For example, in 2007, Mamis wrote a piece for The Fairfield (Conn.) Weekly about the censorship faced by a Wilton High School arts group who sought to perform a play about the War in Iraq.

“I never understood how school officials can teach kids about their rights but then not apply them,” he says.

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