By Michael Bachara
Last month, prohibitionist administrators at Evanston Township High School confiscated an issue of the student newspaper, declaring it glorified drug use, drug dealing and promoted illegal conduct. Last week, at the meeting of the District 202 school board, the student journalists and first amendment legal advocates argued that the school may have violated state law by failing to show justification before confiscating the paper, which included coverage on cannabis use and policy.
“Marijuana is a part of student culture here, and we decided to take advantage of our free speech as a part of the Evanston community. We decided to use our student platform to professionally report on a relevant topic,” said Margo Levitan, the Evanstonian Online Executive Editor, at a board meeting Oct. 9. “We are not promoting marijuana usage…we hope that Evanston’s message of free speech would apply to student voices as well, even if the subject is considered taboo.”
“I was really disappointed with the lack of explanation we received after the paper was confiscated. I was told I had to talk to my teacher or that I had to jump through multiple hoops to get an explanation, which seemed kind of crazy,” said Katy Donati, an Executive Editor who described the move to take the papers as “unfair and inexcusable.” Donati said the paper’s staff attempted to set up a time with the administration to get an explanation but “no response was given.”
“It was frustrating that we sat down that morning with an administration member, showed them the ‘In-Depth’, and they OK’d it, and then to have it taken just a couple hours later was just really confusing,” Donati said. “Then not being given an explanation was just really heartbreaking, especially knowing all the work that every single writer put into the stories.”
Michael Colton, Executive Editor, said the Illinois Speech Rights of Student Journalists Act clearly lays out the only justifications for school administrators to seize student newspapers. He said the articles in question did not incite students to commit an unlawful act, violate district policies or substantially disrupt the orderly operation of the school.
“All stories printed were of student voice, we surveyed students, we got their opinions on the matter, there were no editorials inviting students to use marijuana to romanticizing the use of marijuana in any way,” Colton said, asking the board to have the issue redistributed.
Executive Director of the Community Lawyer Citizen Advocacy Center, Maryam Judar, said at the meeting, the administration had not provided any facts that would warrant the restrictions of the students’ expression.
“They can’t rely on undifferentiated fear and apprehension as a justification,” Judar sad. “The school must be able to show that its action was caused by something more than just a mere desire to avoid discomfort or unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint or a controversial topics.” Judar said it appeared school authorities seized the papers to avoid controversial expression, which is illegal under state law.
The coverage in question, a two page spread, entitled “The Pot Thickens…”, included articles on pending legislation to legalize recreational cannabis use and its financial impact on the state, medical cannabis and causes of student cannabis use.
District 202 Superintendent Eric Witherspoon, issued a statement on the confiscation, it read, “On September 22, 2017, the Evanston Township High School (ETHS) student newspaper published a series of articles under the heading The Pot Thickens… 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.”
“The U.S. Constitution and the Illinois Speech Right of Student Journalists Act both 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,” Witherspoon concluded.
Late last week, school administrators informed the paper’s editorial staff that they would be allowed to publish the feature if they altered it to include information on dangers of cannabis use.
On October 23, the District 202 board is set to discuss the matter publicly at its next meeting.