Offensive pamphlet lands nine high schoolers in jail

Thursday, February 26, 1998

MIAMI (AP)—Nine high school students were arrested and charged with hate crimes after distribution of a pamphlet filled with vulgarities and racially and sexually offensive material.


“This is something that is pretty much unheard of,” said Mike Hiestand, an attorney with the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit organization near Washington, D.C., which provides advice to student publications and monitors case law.


“Students aren’t arrested and certainly don’t spend a night in jail for putting out underground newspapers,” he said. “They just aren’t.”


But that’s what five female and four male Killian High School students aged 16 to 18 did before being released Feb. 24 to their parents. They were suspended for the maximum 10 days.


Killian Principal Timothy Dawson ordered school police to arrest the students on campus for their part in distributing 2,500 pamphlets titled “First Amendment.” Along with the vulgarities, the 20-page booklet includes lots of complaints about management and conditions at the school.


“I have often wondered what would happen if I shot Dawson in the head and other teachers who have p—ed me off, or shoot the f—ing b—–d who thought I looked at him wrong, or the airheaded cheerleader who is more concerned about what added layer of Revlon she’s putting on,” read one passage entitled “One Student’s Complaint.”


“I think it’s a misunderstanding. It wasn’t directed at anyone,” said Bill Cox, whose 18-year-old son Matthew, an honor student, is among those charged.


Dawson also recommended the group be expelled.


The school district supported the suspensions and the recommendation for expulsion but recognized there might be problems with the charges, said spokesman Henry Fraind.


School police charged the students under two Florida hate-crime laws, said Pat Bass, senior assistant school board attorney. The first, a first-degree misdemeanor, forbids the anonymous publication of material that exposes “any individual or a religious group to hatred, contempt or ridicule.”


The second charge comes under an “enhancement law,” meaning prosecutors can use evidence like racist writings to increase the severity of penalties associated with another crime — for instance, if a white supremacist were arrested for beating a black person. In this case, applying the enhancement law could make the charges a third-degree felony.


American Civil Liberties Union members said the first law, written in 1945, was rarely used and is legally questionable. They also doubted whether the enhancement law could simply be “piggybacked” without another criminal charge.


The arrests were made without consulting the district’s own lawyers, said School Board attorney Phyllis Douglas, who wouldn’t comment on the merits of the case. “That is going to be for the state attorney to decide.”


State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle would say only that her office is investigating.


First Amendment experts and civil liberties advocates assailed the arrests as “outrageous” and said they were legally dubious.


“We find the actions by the principal and the Dade School Board police reprehensible,” said John de Leon, president of the Miami chapter of the ACLU.


But others, including Arthur Teitelbaum, southern area director for the Anti-Defamation League, offered at least qualified support. “The school has the right to protect its staff, administrators and students from harassment — in this case, racist harassment — and threats.”