It was an emotional act of teen-age mutiny: printing a blank page on the front of the Sidwell Friends school newspaper after administrators had pulled a scathing article about alleged wrongdoing in a math class.
Unsure of what to do with the unpublished story, the staff had an empowering idea: Why not post the story on the internet from a student’s home computer? In fact, thousands of high school students across the country have discovered the same way around school censorshipjust post the stories on the web and spread the word.
More than a decade after a 1988 Supreme Court decision affirmed the right of school administrators to censor student articles, many high school newspapers are finding a new and long-coveted sphere of freedom on the internet, transforming the very nature of free speech for students.
The Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va., estimates that at least 10,000 underground high school newspapers and web pages are floating in cyberspaceand more emerge every day. Some have spunky names, such as “Whatever” and “Words Not Bullets.”
These newspapers are nothing like the innocuous pages of cafeteria menus, winning sports scores, and award columns that school officials peruse and edit before printing, said Mark Goodman, executive director of the center.
“This does open up a whole new world,” said Russ Schwartz, editor of the school newspaper at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., where some students are thinking of launching an underground paper.
For school officials, though, the online underground paper raises new concerns about how to balance the First Amendment with rising anxiety about school safety.
In the aftermath of the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado, the irreverent and sometimes off-color underground newspapers are haunting reminders of the web pages created by the student gunmen, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, in which they spewed their anger.
“Student newspapers and web pages done outside of school [are] one of the stealth issues for schools, and [the issue is] going to become even bigger,” said Edwin C. Darden, a staff attorney for the National School Boards Association. “The dilemma is that the student is off campus, and they have First Amendment rights. On the other hand, school officials have a responsibility to protect the school and not have those rights cause harm or fear within the school walls.”
Several court rulings have declared the internet is outside the reach of school officials. Students who publish independent newspapers or web pages on home computers cannot be censored even if they focus on school issues, courts have said.
Students from coast to coast have started nonprofit sites, such as WireTap, as places to safely post articles banned in school-sponsored publications. The articles cover topics such as teen-agers’ fears that schools are going overboard with “zero tolerance” policies after Columbine.
“It’s incredibly exciting, healthy, and an increasingly necessary outlet for high school journalists who have long been searching for freedom to express themselves,” said Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman at the Freedom Forum. “The fact of the matter is most school officials view their newspapers as fluffy public-relations devices. As long as those conditions don’t change, students are going to find the internet to get out from under that cage.”
The range of underground newspapers is large. Some are gossipy. Sometimes the sites are just a chance for young people to have unfiltered, melancholy rants about feeling misunderstood or ignored.
“Our paper covers topics such as stupid school policies, corrupt teachers, youth rights issues, and is a reflection of all-around general youth angst,” declares the web page for Pandora’s Box, an underground newspaper in Alhambra, Calif.
Some papers are serious works of journalism, where students question authority and expose problems.
At Dorman High School in Spartanburg, S.C., the underground newspaper scooped the local media with a story about how a businessman was trying to buy the land the high school is on. The student paper also reportedly was able to get school officials to put up bathroom stalls in the boys’ restrooms.
“Some teachers really ended up enjoying the paper, and it helped spark school debate,” said Adrian Smith, who created DHS UnderGround in 1997 to give himself and other students the chance to write about issues that were not allowed in the regular school newspaper. “It was a lot of fun, and it was a way to get our ideas heard. It’s something I will never, ever regret doing.”
But what does a school official do when a student posts something that appears to go beyond teen-age ventinga comment that could be a threat, even in joke form, against a school?
There have been several cases in which school officials objected to a profanity-laced web page or an underground newspaper that mocked educators.
In one case, Ian Lake, a Milford, Utah, teen-ager posted an underground newspaper that made fun of some girls at his school and called one school official a town drunk.
Lake’s web site seemed like an electronic version of bathroom wall graffiti. But school officials viewed the site as a direct and violent threat, and they suspended the student. Sheriff’s deputies arrested him and seized his computer, sending it to the state crime lab. He spent seven nights in a juvenile detention center.
The charges of criminal slander filed against Lake have since been dismissed, and his civil suit against the school is pending.
“I don’t morally approve of what he did. But the reason we are fighting this is because I am a strong believer in the Constitution of the United States,” said his father, David Lake. “It was written as a parody. We see parody on television all the time, and people on ‘Saturday Night Live’ don’t get arrested.”
In the most recent victory for student rights in cyberspace, a county judge in Olympia, Wash., ruled that public school officials cannot punish a student for speech outside of school.
Aside from fear of dangerous web sites, school officials said one of their concerns is that students without adult newspaper advisers are missing out on learning how to produce a serious newspaper.
“It’s an important point,” said Sara Cajder, a journalism teacher at James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring, Md., where a student has told her that he wants to create his own newspaper online. “I think going online avoids censorship, but there is also a real value to teaching students about libel and educating them about how to practice journalism and express their ideas.”
Some schools, such as Blake and Yorktown High School in Arlington, have found ways to step in and help students run newspapers on the web. Adults are realizing they should stay involved, even if the project is done outside school, Cajder said.
“There is a way to have a happy medium,” she said.
At Yorktown, for instance, Nick Summers, co-editor of the regular school newspaper, worked with school officials and the school’s web master to set up the newspaper’s web site. The site will have its own server that will be out of the reach of school officials.
At Sidwell Friends school, the censorship issue began when the newspaper investigated an incident in which students pretending to be a teacher called a textbook company to get workbook answers. School officials told the newspaper staff that a story about the episode would be needlessly embarrassing to the school, which prompted the students to post the article on the internet.
Since then, Sidwell officials have told the student editors they will try to be more flexible so that students don’t have to resort to using the web, said Jake Jeppson, an editor for the school paper.
“The idea of turning to the web sparked discussion with the administration, and in the next instance, our editors got more control,” Jeppson said. “The availability of the internet ended up helping the print paper.”
For now, cyberspace is a new and protected place to vent frustrations, with or without adult approval.
“Sir Lance A Lot’s Herald,” an underground paper from Wimberly, Texas, High School, has both satire with goofy pictures of the editors and serious articles that have sparked changes in school policy. Last year, the paper reported that a gun was brought to school, a story that the regular school newspaper did not touch.
“No one wants to offend anyone. But there are kids in the journalism department, and they are very talented, but they can’t say what they want to because it’s censored,” said Lance Lipinsky, a sophomore and founder of the online paper. “We have found a way around that.”
Student Press Law Center
James Hubert Blake High School
Yorktown High School
Sir Lance A Lot’s Herald