The staff of Evanston Township High School’s student-run newspaper accused the school administration of violating their right to free speech by confiscating an issue of the paper and not providing a reason in a timely manner as required by law. The Sept. 22 issue of The Evanstonian contained a two-page spread in the “In Depth” section of the paper addressing marijuana usage at the school and related issues.
Student editors from the paper brought the issue to the attention of the District 202 School Board during the public comment portion of the Board’s Oct. 9 meeting. They said the paper was approved by both a faculty advisor and a member of the administration but was then confiscated during distribution by a department chair without explanation.
One of the news editors of The Evanstonian said the paper was confiscated with “very little explanation about why,” which left the students “confused about what was wrong.” She told the Board the student paper covered the topic of marijuana usage because it is a “prominent and important aspect of student life and culture and needed to be covered in a large, public way,” and that reporters felt comfortable covering the topic because of “ETHS’s reputation as an inclusive community welcoming of free speech.”
The “In-Depth” section of the paper, titled, “The Pot Thickens…,” featured six articles and infographics that looked at local and State actions, medical marijuana, why and how often students smoke pot, restaurants where students like to “fill up,” and an interview with an alleged drug dealer.
“We didn’t want to limit our focus,” said the paper’s staff member. “The purpose was to discover why so many students smoke, not to promote usage or condone illegal activity.”
The administration gives a different perspective on the two-page spread in a statement that was provided to the RoundTable on Oct. 17: “The two-page spread features six articles, including 6 Questions for a Drug Dealer and School Stress Causes Marijuana Usage. Both articles promote illegal conduct that also violates school policy. For example, the Drug Dealer article states that a reason to sell marijuana is to make money, as much as one hundred-sixty dollars per ounce. The School Stress article states that using marijuana makes a student funnier and more confident. The article goes on to state that a ‘feeling of euphoria and bliss’ is caused by a chemical in marijuana.”
In its statement, ETHS said that laws “provide student journalists with certain rights to speech that ETHS celebrates. Those rights are limited. When student journalism incites unlawful acts, violation of school policy, or disrupts the school, the administration has the authority to impose limits. The articles on September 22, 2017 did cross these lines and were removed from circulation for that reason.”
ETHS legal counsel reviewed the articles with the administration, the statement says, and Dr. Marcus Campbell, Principal of ETHS, “determined that the articles glorify both drug use and drug dealing, messages that are detrimental to ETHS students.”
Dr. Campbell added, in an email response to the RoundTable, that “It wasn’t an approval (initially provided by the administration), we weren’t really sure what we could do about it.”
The editorial staff of the Evanstonian disputes the administration’s characterization of the articles. An editorial posted online on Oct. 16, says, “The content of these stories would be obvious information, if not for the fact that distribution and circulation of the paper was barred …
“Our printed content on weed was solely of student voice, containing no opinions, no propaganda and no encouragement of usage. Our only goal was to display a prominent aspect of student life; yet, the administration still restricted our content.”
The RoundTable obtained a copy of the confiscated paper. The lead sentence in the article “School Stress Causes Marijuana Usage” says, “Although marijuana can be damaging to their health, many students overlook the risks and smoke weed anyway because they enjoy the simplicity and bliss that comes from it.” The article then gives students’ views, quotes from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and quotes a health teacher at the school.
The article “6 Questions for a Drug Dealer” gives a self-identified drug dealer’s responses to questions about why he sells marijuana and how much he makes.
At the Board meeting, students cited their rights under the Illinois Speech Rights of Student Journalists Act. One of the executive editors said the law gives student papers the “ability to choose content and distribute it freely with an overseeing supervisor.” He cited the Act, which states that the administration may restrict student press only when content “incites students to commit an unlawful act, to violate policies of the school district, or to materially and substantially disrupt the orderly operation of the school.
“None of these were violated,” the executive editor said. There were no editorials, no opinions and no romanticizing of pot use, he said. The law also states that when school officials attempt to censor student journalism, they “shall have the burden of showing justification without undue delay prior to a limitation of student expression under the Act.”
A week and a half passed before the administration responded to the students’ request for a meeting which was scheduled three weeks after the confiscation occurred, he said.
“Three weeks, to me, that’s not without undue delay,” said Maryam Judar said to the Board. She is Executive Director/Community lawyer of the Citizen Advocacy Center. The student journalists contacted the Center to help understand their rights, she said. The new state law gives students greater First Amendment rights and gives specific reasons for confiscation and restrictions of the press. “None seem to fit,” she said.
Stan Zoller, a journalism educator and member of several related organizations, told the School Board that the “confiscation is inexcusable.” The Evanstonian is an outstanding paper, he said, pointing out their State tournament victories. “The solution is simple: demonstrate a love of life-long learning” by distributing the paper.
On Oct. 13, a meeting was held between administrators Dr. Campbell, Superintendent Eric Witherspoon, and English Department Head Samoane Jones and several members of The Evanstonian staff. The group discussed why the newspapers were confiscated and reviewed what occurred on the day it happened.
“Our conversation went well,” Dr. Campbell told the RoundTable.
“After some back-and-forth, we decided upon revising the In-Depth about marijuana and then reprinting it, the specifics of which have to be ironed out,” a staff member of the Evanstonian told the RoundTable. “Additionally, we agreed to open the line of communication with administration and The Evanstonian,” he said.
The online editorial, posted on the Monday after the meeting, says, “What remained unanswered by the party responsible for the confiscation, or by an administrative official for that matter, was the simple question of ‘why?’
“Just why had the administration moved to censorship? Why had hours of writing, editing and design been nullified? Why were student athletes supported in taking knee, expressing their freedom of speech, but the paper was confiscated? Not only do we feel that basic ethical principles of free expression for student journalists have been violated, we hold that 2016 Illinois Public Act 99-0678 has been violated.
“We, The Evanstonian, ask not only that the confiscated issue be redistributed in the name of free speech, but that the School Board, the administration and the community respect and acknowledge our right to free press and content going forward, not only in accordance with State law, but in accordance with the very principles that ground our City’s progressive identity.”