Last month, the student newspaper at an Illinois high school ran a two-page spread regarding marijuana and the relationships students have with the plant. The staff at the Evanstonian picked a pun-appropriate headline for the spread: “The Pot Thickens…” Some of the stories included an informative breakdown of marijuana’s medicinal effects, how legalization could impact the school, and how school stress causes some students to use cannabis.
The most questionable article among the spread was called “6 Question For A Drug Dealer,” which included the eyebrow-raising responses you might expect. (The anonymous dealer claimed to have been robbed at gunpoint and insinuates buying weed on the dark web.) At no point does the spread encourage or romanticize marijuana consumption. Instead, the student reporters engaged in objective journalism, surveying an issue affecting the school. Their own opinions on marijuana and student usage was left out of it.
As is protocol in student newspaper settings, particularly at the high school level, the staff showed the possibly taboo edition to a school administrator. According to the Evanstonian Executive Editor Katy Donati, the students received the OK on publication and distribution.
About a couple hours later, the issue was confiscated with no explanation from school administration. Only 500 copies of the issue made it to circulation.
“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,” Evanstonian Online Executive Editor Margo Levitan at an Oct. 9 board meeting. “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.”
School administrators now state the issue glorified drug use and elevated illegal activity to students. But the student journalists, as well as first amendment legal advocates, contend that administrators might have violated state law by not giving proper justification before confiscation of the newspaper that included the two-page marijuana-focused spread.
“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,” states a staff editorial titled “Student press rights must be respected” on the Evanstonian’s website. “The 2016 law, enacted in order to protect student journalists from unwarranted censorship from administrative authority, guarantees student papers the right to choose and print their own content free from intervention unless the administration has proven that the work is obscene, offensive or provocative of illegal activity.
“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 paper’s staff cited Illinois’ Speech Rights of Student Journalists Act in their defense. The 2016 law states that administrators must provide appropriate justification prior to censorship. There is no current evidence of Evanston’s administrators having done so.
The district Superintendent Eric Witherspoon later released a full explanation of why the student newspaper was confiscated.
Dr. Marcus Campbell, Principal of ETHS, collaborated with the ETHS administrative team and legal counsel in reviewing the published articles. Dr. Campbell determined that the articles glorify both drug use and drug dealing, messages that are detrimental to ETHS students.
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.
Talking with the Student Press Law Center, Maryam Judar, who serves as executive director of the Citizen Advocacy Center, proclaimed the confiscation illegal.
As the country’s conversations start to change, so might society’s expectations of what’s allowable at the high school,” she told the SPLC. “So if society is having a conversation about this, and the Illinois General Assembly is talking about…legalizing the recreational marijuana, then why can’t that be reflected in the paper?”
Evanstonian staff member later met with administration on Oct. 13, after the story started receiving media attention. Administration agreed to allow students to publish the articles if they included a disclaimer about the danger of marijuana usage.
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Michael Colton, an Executive Editor at the newspaper, told the SLPC he was satisfied with the outcome. Still, he remains cautious about giving up editorial independence to the school in such a manner.
“We certainly feel that journalistic standards are for us to determine” he said. “We came to that sort of compromise, really just to be able to showcase our work.”
The school district board will further discuss the matter at its new meeting Oct. 23.