Phoenix student vows to continue publishing

Thursday, December 3, 1998

Although school officials have twice seized his independent newspaper, a Phoenix high school editor pledges that he won't stop publishing.

“As long as I have the means and money, I'll publish the newspaper,” said Ben Powers, a 17-year-old junior at Central High School in Phoenix. “It's something I love to do. It's been a major part of me for the last year and a half.”

Powers established his newspaper, Central Voice, as an alternative to Central Echoes, the school's official student newspaper. Powers said he had been a reporter and an editor for Echoes but left because he didn't like a new adviser's handling of the paper.

The first issue of Central Voice appeared on campus last October, but school officials confiscated more than 300 copies before they could be distributed. School officials seized 200 copies of the paper's second edition on Nov. 30.

On Dec. 1, officials agreed to return all 500 copies to Powers.

In a letter to the student, an attorney for the Phoenix Union High School District said Powers had no right to distribute his newspaper on campus without permission from school officials.

“Central High School is not a public forum,” Robert Haws wrote to Powers. “Non-school-sponsored publications such as yours may not be distributed on school grounds absent express authorization from the Central High School administration, and even then only subject to the time, place and manner limitations the school has established.”

Powers denied handing out the paper's first edition on campus, although he noted that other students had done so. He and a teacher distributed the second edition of the paper off campus near the school's parking lots.

School officials dispute Powers' claim that he was off campus, and said the teacher who helped hand out the newspapers was not reprimanded.

Haws warned Powers that he could face legal action for “defamatory” content in the paper. He wrote that the school district would, “if necessary, defend itself and its employees who have devoted their professional lives to education in order to protect the well-deserved reputations they have earned.”

In a story yesterday about Powers, the Arizona Republic of Phoenix reported that school officials hadn't mentioned how Powers had defamed teachers.

The Republic article said the Voice's content seemed noncontroversial and noted that the first issue featured a homecoming story on Central's football team. The issue also featured a column by Powers, in which he claimed that teachers and the school principal censor many stories appearing in Echoes.

Dan Barr, a Phoenix attorney who specializes in First Amendment cases and is representing Powers, said school officials were trying to bully the student, particularly when they sent a security guard off campus to take newspapers away from him.

Barr said that school officials must establish reasonable restrictions, such as allowing the student to hand out papers only during lunch or between periods. He said school officials hadn't explained to him why they felt they could ban distribution altogether.

“I'm hoping the people at the school district will take control of this, but it's doing its best to walk right into a lawsuit,” Barr said. “This kid is 17 going on 30, and all he wants to do is to distribute this newspaper.”

Barr said school officials saw Powers' newspaper as strong competition to the school-sponsored publication and didn't want it on school grounds.

“If you held his paper next to the official school paper, you'd think the official school paper was the underground paper,” said Barr, adding that Voices looks more professionally designed than Echoes.

But Jim Cummings, a spokesman for the school district, said that Powers' newspaper was not considered a threat to the school-sponsored paper. Cummings said First Amendment issues are not in play because district policy isn't content-based; it prohibits the distribution of all non-school-sponsored material.

“We're not trying to tell Ben what to put in his newspaper or how to design it or how to lay it out,” he said. “His is an independent newspaper. The content is up to him and his staff.”

In the leading student-expression case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District in 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students have a First Amendment right to freely express themselves in school. Nineteen years later, the court, in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, said school officials may monitor school-sponsored publications if they can demonstrate sound educational reasons for doing so.

But Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said that even under Hazelwood school officials cannot make blanket determinations about what kind of non-school-sponsored expression will occur in school.

“They legally don't have the right to say that, when you step into the school, you lose your First Amendment rights,” Goodman said. “The Supreme Court established that in Tinker and reaffirmed it in Hazelwood. The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which governs Arizona, said it's even more important that students have the right to express themselves freely in non-school-sponsored venues.

“Given all of the things that could appear in an underground newspaper, this kid has really done a responsible job,” Goodman said. “I really think the school district is barking up the wrong tree.”

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.