I know a high school teacher in Wisconsin who worries that the First Amendment is not "personal" to her students. "If they don't use it, if they don't fight for it," she says, "it'll just be some words on a piece of paper."
In San Diego, two 17-year-olds, Daniel Gluesenkamp and Philip Tiso, have taken the First Amendment personally and, in a long learning process, have achieved what appears to be the most substantial free-press victory for a high school newspaper in the history of the nation.
In September 1984, Gluesenkamp and Tiso put together a nonofficial school newspaper, Hatchet Job. The aim of the paper was to stir at least some of the students at Fallbrook High School from their solipsistic lethargy. The paper would be open to all ideas, would not censor and would give those who "did not make it into journalism" class a second chance. One article ended: "Right now somebody's dying, and you're upset because your school picture turned out bad. Open your eyes."
In addition there was a list of teachers to be measured by the readers under such categories as "cruel, intelligent, boring, hypocritical, understanding." Some of the language in Hatchet Job was profane -- of the sort commonly heard in school corridors and, as an assistant principal later testified, in the teachers' lounge and during informal observations by the district superintendent when he came visiting. By no legal standard were any of the words obscene.
Also, in one of those loony-tune fits that sometimes overcome teen-agers, there was a photograph of a school awards ceremony involving the local school board chairman, the local congressman and the federal secretary of education at the time, Terrel Bell. The three were shaking hands, and the caption read: "Beneath the pomp and grandeur of the . . . ceremony, the three guests of honor were discovered exchanging mind-altering chemicals; a drug deal." (Elsewhere in the issue, the true nature of the luminaries' presence was stated.)
The two journalists were suspended by the principal -- one for five days, the other for two. The charges: publishing an unauthorized paper that contained obscene and libelous material. And, as reported by the San Diego Union, a group of ministers wrote to various school officials heartily supporting these disciplinary measures.
Coming to the rescue of the embattled students was the San Diego Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. The scourge of high school principals in free-press cases around the country, the ACLU arranged for volunteer attorneys to represent Gluesenkamp and Tiso.
A $9.6 million suit was filed against the school district on the ground that the students' First Amendment rights had been violated by, among other means, the principal's insistence that no student paper could be published unless school officials first reviewed it. There is a heavy legal presumption against prior restraint of grown-up journalists, the boys' lawyers said, and student journalists should be similarly protected.
A state Superior Court judge ruled that according to state education statutes, the Fallbrook Union High School District had illegally suspended the two students. Before trial began on the students' claims of First Amendment damages, a settlement was reached in the case.
The school district agreed to pay $22,000 to Gluesenkamp and Tiso. There had been about $6,000 in out-of-pocket court costs for volunteer attorney Charles Bird that had been paid by the ACLU. That money has been repaid to the San Diego chapter from the settlement, but the victorious student journalists have also made a significant contribution to the ACLU from the money that was left.
As part of the settlement, the trustees of the high school district wrote a letter of apology to the two students, acknowledging that their suspensions had been illegal, thereby clearing their school records for college applications. The trustees also expressed "regret for any inconveniences the board actions have caused you."
Bird is particularly pleased that the settlement also calls for the board of trustees to cosponsor, along with the California School Boards Association, a one-day workshop on free expression and the First Amendment. The session is pointedly designed for teachers and administrators as well as for students. Bird also tells me there is no longer prior restraint of the student press in the district, thereby bringing it into conformity with California state law.
Hatchet Job publisher Gluesenkamp views the future cautiously, but says of the administration: "I think they'll be a little more careful next time."