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Some schools trying to limit student free speech

By Neil Gonzales Stockton Record November 29, 2004

Stagg High School journalism students have tackled controversial issues over the years with little fear the administration would interfere or even pull their stories.

"They really kind of leave us alone and respect what we're doing," said Violet Salazar, 16, news page editor of the award-winning Stagg Line, which has done stories on campus fights and other topics sensitive to the administration. "I think the principal really supports us and wants us to express ourselves and our individuality."

She and her fellow young journalists at the Stockton campus should feel especially fortunate these days because, according to some observers, high schools nationwide are trying to clamp down more on student free speech.

"The trend is really going the other way -- toward limiting student expression," said Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar and director of education programs with the Tennessee-based First Amendment Center.

Haynes partly attributed that trend to schools' efforts to improve campus security after Colorado's Columbine High shooting in April 1999.

"Some administrations reacted to that by doing more to limit expression," Haynes said.

As a result, schools can find themselves straddling a fine line between recognizing students' right to free speech and ensuring campus safety.

In 2001, for instance, a teen was expelled from his high school in San Jose and ultimately spent 100 days in juvenile

hall for writing a poem that suggested he might kill fellow students.

This past July, the California Supreme Court reversed the conviction, ruling school officials overreacted to the poem. However, the court also ruled that students couldn't make direct threats and shield themselves through art.

Lodi Unified School District Superintendent Bill Huyett said the poem sounds more like a threat than freedom of expression.

"But in general," Huyett said, "if a student writes about a physical threat, they violate the education code and the penal code."

He added that schools can restrict student expression if it contains obscenity or proves disruptive to the learning environment.

Still, he said, most school districts allow youngsters an open forum for expression such as the campus newspaper or student clubs.

Other court decisions and legislation conclude as much.

The United States Supreme Court ruled in a 1969 case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, that schools could not force students to give up their right to freedom of expression.

In 1984, the federal Equal Access Act granted students greater liberty than in the past to form extracurricular groups and thus led to the explosion of school clubs, ranging from the religious to those supporting gay rights.

In that sense, Haynes acknowledged that student expression has gained ground.

But he insists that student free speech is more narrowly interpreted now. He cited a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier.

In that case, the high court ruled that school administrators have some control of the content of student newspapers, including stories about "sensitive topics."

Don Bott, Stagg's journalism adviser and an English literature teacher, said he has also noticed a nationwide movement to limit student free speech.

But he noted that California and several other states do have education-code provisions that provide student journalists in public high schools added protection against administrative censorship.

"Certainly if you do (journalism) irresponsibly, you open the door to people being watchful of what you're doing," Bott said. "So we want to do it accurately, fairly and in a balanced way."

Stagg Line staffer Abraham Chase, 17, said he believes he and his peers do that more times than not.

"I think the fact that we don't have people censoring us all the time is because we're pretty good in directing ourselves in a respectful manner," the senior said.


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Last modified: November 30, 2004

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