Reprinted from Chumps on Parade (November 1997)
Underground newspapers are a perfectly legal way for students to express themselves, no matter what administrators might try to tell them. They serve the purpose of giving the students a voice where they can speak on any topic without the fear of being censored by a school official or giving out their identity. The First Amendment, or the right to freedom of speech, is the principal that protects student publications.
A supreme court case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, stated that students do not lose the right to freedom of expression under the first amendment when they enter school. This decision has been applied to various cases regarding the distribution of literature at schools, upholding the rights of the students to distribute their literature. The only way schools can control the distribution is the time and place where it can be distributed, but they cannot ban it completely or censor content. The students must be allowed to distribute their literature at school.
Some principals will cite the clause in the Tinker decision, which states that literature can be barred from school if it’s distribution martially and substantially interferes with school activities. According to Sullivan v. Houston Independent School District, minor disruptions must be tolerated in order to accommodate the rights of students to express their views. The court stated that it is “their misconduct in the manner in which they distributed the paper, not the idea of a newspaper that should be stopped.” The American Civil Liberties Union also agrees that some disruptions in distributing the literature does not justify banning the literature. The school can make a rule that regulates the time, place, and manner of distribution. However, a rule that regulated the distribution so that the majority of students couldn’t get access to the newspaper would be unconstitutional.
Despite the fact that the school cannot censor a student newspaper, the newspaper is still required to follow the rules of any other newspaper. Rules regarding libel, copyright infringement, and invasion of privacy still apply. As with any publication, it is up to the student editors to decide what is appropriate and inappropriate.
Some people will ask why students don’t use the school newspaper to express their views, and there is a simple answer to that question. Newspapers paid for by the school or created using school supplies can be censored, to some extent. However, the school cannot censor publications made by the students with their own funds and supplies, since they are independently produced. It is much easier for a student to write a “controversial” article or an article criticizing the school if they don’t have to worry about their article being censored.
Underground newspapers are an important part of students’ First Amendment rights. It has been established in several different court cases over the past 28 years that students have the right to publish newspapers and distribute them at school. Students cannot be stopped because they present an unpopular viewpoint or criticism of the school; they are protected by the First Amendment.