Tough times at ‘Free Speech High:’ School administrators teaching dismal First Amendment lessons

Monday, December 7, 1998

For just a taste of the dismal state of free expression for the nation’s
young people, consider last week’s story of the Phoenix high school student who
tried to publish his own newspaper and wound up in the headlines himself.

When junior Ben Powers tried to distribute his independent newspaper at
Central High School, school officials confiscated the copies. What’s worse,
the school’s attorney warned the 17-year-old in a letter that he could face
legal action.

Only after the story started getting prominent mention in the Phoenix media
did school administrators start rethinking their actions. Eventually they
decided that they would allow Ben Powers’ newspaper on campus.

“Far from condemning this student, we should be impressed,” Superintendent
Rene X. 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.”

Superintendent Diaz is to be commended for those words, but it would have
been a lot better if he and his subordinates had developed that insight a
little earlier. An ideal time would have been before they confiscated
Powers’ newspapers the first time, back in October.

The suppression of student free-press rights should be an anomaly, but it
is not. In fact, it is all too common. Here are just a few examples of
what is going on in the nation’s high schools:

  • In Tampa, Fla., a high school teacher was barred from discussing the Starr
    report in her class of 17 seniors and one junior, despite having
    gotten written permission from all of their parents.
  • In Denver, South High Principal Shawn Batterberry supported local
    police after they accosted two student journalists taking pictures of the
    aftermath of an altercation at the school, took their film away from them
    and exposed it.
  • In Blue Springs, Mo., students have filed a lawsuit against South High
    School claiming officials fired their adviser for refusing to censor
    stories that the officials didn’t like.
  • At Mosely High School in Florida, a teacher who had advised the
    award-winning newspaper for eight years was fired because of the “negative”
    content of the paper.
  • In Los Altos High School in California, school officials ordered the
    removal of a front-page photo in the student newspaper because they thought
    it might provoke an adverse reaction from students at a rival school.
  • In Silver Springs, Nev., high school officials pulled a student literary
    magazine from store shelves and apologized for a poem that townspeople
    thought was too critical of the community.
  • In New York City, Stuyvesant High School officials shut down an
    award-winning newspaper after it published articles critical of

The list goes on and on. Since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hazelwood v.
a decade ago, many school officials have felt free to
censor the student press — in newspapers, magazines, yearbooks, radio
or television broadcasts.

But these attacks on the independence and integrity of the student press is
just part of a larger picture in which high school students are only
sort-of citizens when it comes to First Amendment rights. The suppression
extends to all aspects of student expressive activities.

At the high school in Bellevue, Ohio, the play “Ashes, Ashes, All Fall
Down” was canceled only a few days before it was to go on because two of
the topics it touches on are death and suicide.

In Rhode Island, a Westerly High School student has decided to go to court
after he was suspended twice
for wearing a White Zombie rock group T-shirt.

In Vernon, Conn., high school students presented a petition asking the town
council to rescind a curfew law. Instead, the town council voted to extend
the law for another year.

In Van Buren, Mich., when students in advanced-placement biology and
ecology classes opened their new textbooks this fall, they found that all
the pages headed “abortions and pregnancies” had been ripped out by school

In St. Louis, school officials yanked
the 1960s Jefferson Airplane hit
“White Rabbit” from the marching band’s half-time routine because the
song’s lyrics referred to drugs, even though the song wasn’t being sung.

Last spring, the valedictorian at Musselman High School in West Virginia
was told by the principal that he could not make his speech because he was
saying that sports was more valued than academics.

In Fall Brook, Calif., a sophomore was punished for remaining seated
during the Pledge of Allegiance, despite numerous court rulings that it is
the First Amendment right of a student not to be compelled to stand.

And in Marble Hill, Mo., a student
was disciplined for insulting
teachers and administrators on a personal Web site that he put out on
his home computer.

This list, too, could go on and on. As chilling as these examples are, they
are just a glimpse of what goes on in the nation’s high schools day after
day, year after year. Only some of these incidents are reported. Many
times they go without notice or without challenge by students too busy or
too intimidated to stand up for their own or fellow students’ rights.

Literally hundreds, perhaps thousands, of these incidents happen every
school year. A student, a class, or even a whole school is stripped of
fundamental freedoms by a school official more concerned with asserting
firm control than teaching good citizenship. Schools should prepare
students for citizenship and empower them with the rights that must precede
responsibility. Instead, school officials, by their actions, are teaching a
cramped and distorted understanding of our First Amendment heritage.

Of course, we must appreciate the responsibility that teachers and
administrators have for creating and maintaining a safe and orderly
learning environment in their schools, as well as understand the
difficulties in achieving that goal. We also must insist that it is
possible — perhaps not easy, but possible — to create a good
learning environment and still respect First Amendment rights and values
regarding students.

The lesson all educators must never forget is that their young charges
learn as much from example as they do from books and lectures. If there is
any doubt about that truism, consider the lessons implicit in just one
event, say the cancellation of the school play in Bellevue, Ohio:

The student actors learned that the reward for hard work is hard knocks.

The drama teacher learned that it is better to placate her bosses than to
challenge her students.

The school officials learned, once again, that might makes right.

And the students learned, once again, that might trumps rights.

Every time such an incident occurs, it reverberates throughout the school,
into the community, and into the future. When what our young people see
contradicts what their teachers and textbooks say, the civics lesson
learned makes a mockery of the fundamental freedoms that we as a nation

Paul McMasters can be contacted at