Underground student newspapers irk school officials

Tuesday, June 9, 1998

Underground student newspapers in two high schools have led to a police investigation in Connecticut and the suspension of three seniors in West Virginia.

In Huntington, W.Va., three students due to graduate with honors were barred from commencement activities last week after publishing an underground newspaper that a journalism teacher described as “vicious.”

In Chesire, Conn., police are investigating an underground student newspaper that lampooned faculty members and included a column saying one teacher possibly needed to be shot.

A student-press expert said actions against the students will be difficult because non-school sponsored publications, such as underground newspapers, enjoy much greater protection than those endorsed by the school.

But action could be taken if school officials show that the publications disrupted the school day or threatened students or school officials, said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

“The students naming these people that should be shot … I don't know if that would necessarily be constituted as a real threat,” Goodman said. “We often hear adults say that some officials should be shot.”

But he added that recent violent school episodes, such as in Jonesboro, Ark., have many people paranoid, so the threat could be perceived as real.

At Huntington High School, three students published a newsletter that included a fictitious interview with Principal Charlie Buell and a list of “senior superlatives,” which included derogatory remarks about individual students and teachers. The newspaper also was filled with vulgar humor and sexual references.

Journalism teacher Camelia Hale said she hoped the episode would not be repeated.

“I don't want to see this become a tradition,” Hale said. “It was vicious. It was a bad way to end the year.”

Cabell County School Superintendent Richard Jefferson decided last week to suspend the three students, who have not been identified, and not allow them to participate in graduation ceremonies.

In Chesire, Conn., the June issue of “Eyesight to the Blind,” distributed Monday, singled out 11 teachers with either insults or threats. Describing a science teacher, one writer said, “This lady needs a serious attitude adjustment, possibly a hollow-point .45 to the head,” referring to a bullet.

Police began investigating Monday night after receiving a complaint from school officials. Ten students could face criminal charges, according to authorities.

“I want the world to know that we are taking this very seriously,” said school Superintendent Ralph Wallace.

The students use numbers instead of names to identify themselves. A disclaimer on the front page says the newspaper is intended not as an attack on the school or students but as a demonstration of free speech.

The 1988 Supreme Court decision in Hazlewood School District v. Kuhlmeier allows school officials to censor school-sponsored student expression if they have a legitimate educational reason for doing so.

Subsequent decisions in lower courts have allowed greater protection for student publications not sanctioned by school officials.

Earlier this year, school officials in Miami-Dade County Public Schools determined they didn't have grounds to press charges against nine Killian High School students who published an underground pamphlet filled with racist comments, depictions of rape and threats against their principal.

Goodman said that underground newspapers most often surface when student expression is restricted elsewhere.

“When students are stifled they seek a way to express themselves–to lash out, if you will–including ways that would not be most appealing to school officials or the community,” he said. “I would be interested in knowing if the school-sponsored publications [in those schools] are being censored.”

–The Associated Press contributed to this report.