Defending Freedom of the Press
A middle school student organizes to defend a student newspaper.
I’ve put out three issues of an underground political newspaper at Winter Haven, the middle school I attend. My goals in putting out these newspapers, which I call “Seeds,” are twofold. I want to educate myself and other students about political, environmental, and other issues the mainstream media might not cover, or cover only with extreme bias. As a result of this, I hope to help start a political movement among students at my school. I am not completely alone in my endeavors. I have two comrades who provide moral support, help me distribute the paper, and contribute an occasional article. “Seeds” recently sparked a first amendment controversy at my school which helped me achieve one of my goals – beginning to mobilize a student movement – and also taught me a lot about organizing.
We wrote and distributed the first issue of the paper without alerting any school officials. I was worried it would be banned or regulated in a way that would hinder it before we could get it out. It turned out my fears were not unfounded. The same day my friends and I handed out the newspaper, I was called down to the principal’s office. She said that for me to continue to distribute on school grounds, I needed to give her the paper ahead of time so she could review it. All she would do, she said, is make sure the content didn’t include racist or homophobic slurs, personal attacks, or anything libelous or slanderous. I was initially worried about the content of the paper being changed, but I wasn’t planning to put in anything of that nature so I grudgingly assented.
Student response to the first issue was limited. In hindsight, I would have done better to write about things that directly concerned students. All I wrote about was the WTO, Mumia’s case, bioengineering, and a few other things. For my second issue, I didn’t make the same mistake. I gave it a feature which took up 60% of the paper – how corporations advertise in schools. When I gave the principal the paper, she told me that I couldn’t hand it out, I could only leave it on a table with a sign saying “take me.” My natural instinct to rebel against authority immediately kicked in. My first thought was to utterly disobey the rule but, as I thought about it more, I wasn’t sure how much that would accomplish. As I said earlier, one of my main goals with the newspaper was to help start a student movement. I thought it was possible I could achieve this by responding to the unfair regulations that were being imposed.
I decided to add a half sheet describing the situation. In that half sheet I called attention to a leaflet that the school had distributed which directed students to KRAFT’s web site. I made the point that the school distributes advertising, yet students couldn’t even hand out an educational political newspaper. The distribution went very well considering the regulations. Several people on the spur of the moment chose to help direct people to the table on which the newspapers sat. Many people read the half-page I had attached and asked me questions such as “isn’t that a violation of your First Amendment rights?” and told me they sympathized and thought the rule was unfair. This was very heartening.
Later that day, the principal called me down to her office. She was furious about how I had abused her trust. We argued and discussed the rules surrounding the paper, district rules, and the corporate presence in school. The discussion lasted more than an hour and a half. As a result of my questioning the rules, she agreed to give me a copy of the district rules.
I picked over the rules, contacted the American Civil Liberties Union and a few sympathetic lawyers, and did my own research over the internet. I came to the conclusion that district rules didn’t support the regulations the principal had imposed on the paper, and that the Constitution outlawed these regulations. Again I instinctively wanted to ignore the two rules, not allowing the principal to preview the paper or restrict it to a table, but again I decided not to. It seemed to me if I could organize students behind the paper, that would be a bigger victory than getting the rule changed. Therefore, I decided to recruit students to show their support for “Seeds” in a meeting with the principal.
With a lot of help from one of my classmates, I started a phone campaign. For some classmates we stressed that the U.S. Constitution was being violated. We told others we needed their support in developing a political movement for larger change. We basically only called people we know pretty well. I think only a very few turned us down.
Winter Haven is a school of only 80 kids, 52 of whom are seventh or eighth graders. Of those seventh and eighth graders, we managed to get 25 to accompany us to our meeting with the principal. To put it lightly, I was thrilled. We gathered into the hall, and, because not all of us would fit inside the principal’s office, I asked her to come out to talk with us. At first, she refused and wanted to talk only with me. But the most prudent course seemed to be to involve everyone, especially since they had come out to support us. I said that I would only talk with her if everyone was present. Finally, she had us all crowd into the library.
Speaking for the group, I presented what I had discovered in my research. The principal resisted at first but eventually relented on both counts. The main reason, in my opinion, was the large support that the 25 students showed in coming out to support the paper. The principal even commented that “about a third of the school is here to show their support.”
The response from students at Winter Haven was both heartening and encouraging. I was pleasantly surprised by the 25 people who showed their support. As the saying goes, “The people, united, will never be defeated.” We were certainly united, at least for one day, and the results were good.