Don’t Tell Me What To Say

Reprinted from Chumps on Parade (February 1998)

Recently a rule was drafted at a Milwaukee, WI high school that could have a tremendous amount of influence on school policy throughout the United States. Shorewood High School officials decided that the language of students was making the school look bad and disrupted the process of educating students. The rule is reprinted here:

??”6. It is expected that students will use appropriate language. A student will not use such highly offensive words such as fuck, motherfucker, bitch, ho, asshole, and cock sucker. This is not an inclusive list. Penalty-1st time=OSS1 (out of school suspension), 2nd and successive times police referral for disorderly conduct. A staff member will penalize other inappropriate language at his/her discretion.”??

Many of you probably don’t see this having any effect on schools outside of Milwaukee or Wisconsin but it could. The reason why is the recent push by conservative politicians to improve schools and institute “values” (Christian ideas on how we should act) in school. Several politicians across the United States have mentioned they would like to see this added in as many schools as possible. Michigan seems like an ideal place for a rule such as this. Michigan is already debating a law would require students to take an ethics/values class to improve morals. Our governor has stated his support for this proposed class, as well teaching the Bible. Looking at the conservative make up of our area, a rule regulating these words would likely have a lot of support. A recent survey suggested that 85% of American adults support the Milwaukee high school’s decision. In West Michigan the percentage of adults supporting a rule likely be much higher.

To comment on this whole mess, I would have to say that students should be allowed to swear as much as they want. It is an issue of freedom of speech, and if those are the words they want to use, let them-they can deal with the consequences. However, I do believe there are times when it is inappropriate. A student should never swear at a teacher or on an assignment, that is more of an issue of respect than freedom of speech. But if the kid wants to say, “fuck you” to someone he or she doesn’t like, let him or her. A school has no place to regulate the communication between students.

Our Right To Write

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.