It began as an idea at a Sweet Sixteen Party in 1977, where two Springbrook High sophomores charted their ambitious plans to publish an underground newspaper that would bring free expression to their Silver Spring school.

The paper turned out to be short-lived -- its second edition banned by Springbrook's principal. But its legacy was a two year legal battle that finally ended this week in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.

The paper, "The Joint Effort," was confiscated in February 1978 by school officials who objected to an advertisement for a Washington drug paraphernalia shop. This week the federal appeals panel upheld the school's action and ruled that school officials may stop campus distribution of publications that "encourage actions which endanger the health or safety of students."

The director of the Student Press Law Center, a Washington-based organization that works to protect students' First Amendment rights, fears that the decision could "give high school administrators almost unbridled authority to restrict student expression."

"Anything any high school principal feels would 'encourage actions which endanger the health or safety of students' could conceivably be banned under this ruling," said center director Michael Simpson, a lawyer who also represented the two students -- Mark Gutstein and Gregory Williams -- in their legal battle.

"A principal could seize a paper because of an ad for the Army ... or could cut off discussion of an issue such as drug abuse or teen sexuality," Simpson said yesterday as he read the 4th Circuit opinion.

Simpson said the center will not take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, fearing that a loss there would set a "bad precedent" nationwide. The appeals ruling affects only those states, including Maryland and and Virginia, covered by the 4th Circuit.

Despite the outcome, Gutstein, now a Columbia University freshman and a summer intern at the Student Press Law Center, is glad he and Williams took the case to court.

"It was a very important issue," the 18-year-old Gutstein said yesterday. "If we're going to preserve for ourselves the rights the Constitution gives us, the little issues cannot be ignored. I'm glad we took it this far." g

His partner in the "Joint Effort," Williams, now 19, recalled that the impetus for the paper was, in part, an experience he had with the school sponsored newspaper, which completely changed, chopped up and then printed" an article he wrote on an exchange student.

"I just decided maybe I ought to print my own paper," said Williams, now a student at Maharishi International university in Iowa.

Gutstein, who thought the school paper failed to "address controversial issues," joined him, and the first issue was printed and sold for 10 cents a copy without incident in the spring of 1977.

The second issue came out in February 1978, crammed with surveys on marijuana smoking at Springbrook, record and movie reviews, a satirical article on the school principal and a piece of transcedental meditation.

It also contained a full-page advertisement for a Washington head shop touting its best bong, an instrument used to smoke marijuana, and all its "smoke and coke paraphernalia." The back cover of the magazine was graced with a cartoon, portraying the school's building monitor as a gun-toting Western sheriff.

After the paper's supporters had sold more than 50 copies in the school cafeteria, the building monitor rushed in and confiscated the rest because of the cartoon. Later, according to Gutstein and Williams, they were told by principal Thomas P. Marshall that because of the "head shop" ad they could not distribute the paper on schoolgrounds.

The two students appealed the decision through school channels, all the way to the school superintendent, who upheld Marshall's original decision.

Somewhere along the way, according to Williams, Gutstein said, "Let's go to court," and the students filed suit in the U.S. District Court in Baltimore, which ruled against them in 1978. It was that decision which was upheld this week by a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit.

Principal Marshall said he was gratified by the decision which shows "that the First Amendment may not be used as a cover for damaging activity."

Gutstein and Williams said they may ask the full 4th Circuit court to review the panel's decision.