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ACLU asks court to let students distribute underground newspaper

By The Associated Press
10.04.02

SOUTH LYON, Mich. — The American Civil Liberties Union has asked a federal court to order that three high school students be allowed to distribute an underground newspaper called The First Amendment.

The injunction request comes after the three South Lyon High School students were suspended for five days in May. They had written and attempted to distribute a six-page newspaper, named for the constitutional amendment that includes protections for free speech and a free press.

South Lyon schools Superintendent William Pearson said the district requires that the content of student-published newspapers be reviewed by a school principal and meet preset conditions of distribution.

"We're happy with the procedures we have utilized and believe the policy as we've written it is appropriate," Pearson told The Oakland Press of Pontiac for a story today.

A fourth student distributed the newspaper to several hundred students after high school administrators stopped the writers from doing so. That student received a three-day suspension.

Representing three of the four suspended students, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the school district in June.

ACLU lawyer Andrew Nickelhoff was in discussions with district officials, hoping to revise the policy.

Nickelhoff said the district reneged on several agreements, including allowing students to publish anonymously and freeing them from what he said were highly restrictive rules.

The injunction request filed Oct. 2 was a reaction to that action, he said.

Nickelhoff said he also seeks to have the suspended students' disciplinary records expunged.

Pearson said he thought discussions with the ACLU were progressing satisfactorily.

"Although we haven't agreed on every point, the district believes the policy we've written answers the issues we've been discussing," he said.

Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., said the U.S. Supreme Court's 1988 decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier gave school officials the right of prior restraint over student newspapers. He said that applies if the officials show that distribution disrupted school operations or violated the rights of other students.

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, agreed, but added that school administrators get into trouble when they fail to meet the prior restraint standard.

"The courts really have been pretty clear on this about what is punishable when it comes to student expression," he said. "Administrators cannot punish because they do not agree with the content or they find it offensive."

Goodman said courts have ruled that students must be made aware of district policies on alternative newspapers.

Nickelhoff said that was not the case in South Lyon, where school officials can point only to a Board of Education resolution addressing the issue.

"It sits in a notebook in the administration's office," he said. "How can you suspend a student for five days for violating a rule they have never been told about?"


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