Phoenix school district backs off ban on underground newspaper

Friday, December 4, 1998

The Phoenix United School District yesterday agreed to allow a high school junior to distribute his independent newspaper on campus, just three days after school officials seized 200 copies of the publication.

Ben Powers, a 17-year-old student at Central High School, said he created his newspaper, Central Voices, as an alternative to Central Echoes, the official school newspaper.

When the first issue of Central Voices appeared on campus last October, school officials confiscated 300 copies. They seized 200 more on Nov. 30 when Powers tried to hand out the second edition.

For the next two days, the story of Central High School officials confiscating Powers' papers dominated local news coverage. The Arizona Republic gave it front-page play and television news featured it prominently. One Phoenix radio station dedicated nearly two hours to an interview with Powers.

“I didn't think it would be that big of a deal,” Powers said. “I just wanted to put out a paper.”

School officials defended their actions, saying they had a right to forbid the distribution non-school-sponsored publications on campus. A school attorney, in a letter, warned Powers that he could face legal action for defamatory statements about teachers and school administrators.

Powers said he resented the letter's assertion that his newspaper was full of inaccuracies and defamatory statements. He said he combed through the first issue before publication to make sure every word was accurate.

“It was the first one, and I didn't know what the response to it would be,” he said.

Superintendent Rene X. Diaz, in a statement made yesterday to the district's governing board, blamed some of the disagreements between Powers and school officials on “a breakdown in communications.” He said school Principal Barbara Dobbs and Powers worked out an arrangement for the student to distribute future copies of his paper at specific times and locations during the school day.

“Far from condemning this student, we should be impressed,” Diaz said. “After all, he did what I hope we are teaching all of our students, and that is to use critical thinking and creative skills to constructively address issues of concern to them.”

Powers says he's pleased that school officials will allow him to hand out his papers. He said he planned to take advantage of the district's change of heart and publish a third edition before Dec. 18, the last day of the semester.