Miami students rally for free expression

Friday, June 12, 1998

While 200 students rallied outside for their free-speech rights, Miami-Dade County school officials said during a regular meeting Wednesday that they don't plan to dismantle the system's student expression guidelines, considered to be among the most liberal in the country.

A spokesman for the school district said that changing the guidelines was never an issue, although Superintendent Roger Cuevas had arranged for a retired administrator to draft new ones. The spokesman said the board does not plan to vote on the matter.

“We didn't take any action because there was no action to be taken,” Henry Fraind said. “To tell you the truth, we put it to bed long ago.

“There is no move afoot in Miami-Dade to change anything with student expression, and no student rights have been taken away,” Fraind said. “The press keeps turning the pot on this one. They are the ones driving the train with these students.”

But some say school officials are playing a “shell game” and intend to bring the issue up again when students are less active.

These students and journalism educators say they worry the school board plans to dismantle the system's 18-year policy of allowing students their full First Amendment rights to publish, speak and express themselves.

Brenda Feldman, a journalism teacher at Coral Gables High School, said students and teachers want the board to keep their hands off the system's current student expression guidelines.

More than 200 students gathered in front of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools administration building Wednesday. Later, seven of them, along with five professional journalists and educators, addressed the board in an open forum.

The demonstrators said they rallied because Cuevas had requested a draft of new rules. Cuevas said he asked a former administrator to write some new guidelines after nine Killian High School students published a booklet filled with racist comments, depictions of rape and threats against their principal.

The pamphlet was not school-sanctioned.

The new draft states: “Schools may exercise editorial control over the style and content of student speech … as long as the actions of the school are reasonably related to legitimate educational concerns.”

Students and teachers say school officials are already trying to curb student expression.

Last week, the principal at Northwestern High School tried to pull valedictorian and salutatorian speeches from graduation ceremonies because a previous valedictorian had criticized the school. At American High School, a student was suspended but later reinstated after he criticized an administrator on the Internet.

Before the board's regular meeting Wednesday, students posted a six-foot billboard quoting English statesman John Morley: “You may not have converted a man because you have silenced him.”

They placed duct tape on their mouths to symbolize censorship. Others waved signs and American flags, while some encouraged passing motorists to honk their horns.

After the forum, board member Michael Krop said: “I just want them to know how impressed I was with the caliber of students who came before us. I, for one, know those words did not go unattended.”

Chairman Solomon Stinson said he wouldn't speculate on the proposed policy's chances if it should appear before the board.

“Right now, we have a policy in effect,” Solomon told The Miami Herald. “Despite what the newspaper has said, we have not given direction to change the policy, so it should be apparent that we feel it is sufficient. I support the right of free speech.”

“They say that, but all it's going to take is another Killian thing,” teacher Feldman said. “They are dying to pin it on somebody, so they are going to sit back and wait. We have to be ever vigilant. I have no doubt this will come up again.”