Stop The Presses

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Jessica Portner
Raleigh, N.C.

Bathed in the blue glow of his computer screen, Andy Campbell scrolls through an essay about homophobia. His co-editor, Owen Gjertsen, sprawls out on the carpet to outline an editorial on the Oklahoma City bombing. Two other staffers, who will take over as next year's editors, consider their illustration options. Other high school seniors might be outside on this beautiful spring night. But Andy is holding an editorial meeting in his bedroom.

Andy and his colleagues say most of their journalistic endeavors would never fly in the official high school newspaper, which, they believe, presents a sanitized view of the world. The Enloe High School Eagle's Eye, they charge, ignores controversial topics, such as racial tensions and student drug use, that would damage the reputation of this well-respected Southern school.

That attitude is what drove these honors students to become the editors of Vanguard, an underground student-run newspaper that publishes poetry, short stories, and stinging critiques of school policies.

In its three-year history, Vanguard has featured thoughtful and well-written pieces on suicide, religious intolerance, alternatives to college, and the need for a multicultural curriculum, to name a few. Though Vanguard's publishing cycle often slows during examination time, the editors routinely distribute 250 free copies to their fellow students every month.

"Without Vanguard, all the information students hear is from their parents and teachers," Owen says, sifting through a pile of submissions for the year's final issue, which was due out last month. Owen sees himself more as an artist than an agitator. But, he adds, "Students need a broader education."

Alternative Press Boom

Underground journals have provoked controversy since colonial times. And although their growth has slowed over the past two decades, the information age has ushered in a thriving new market for the alternative press: the public schools.

Industry observers estimate that some 30 percent of U.S. homes are now equipped with personal computers--a technological revolution that has transformed teenagers into independent publishers. Instead of staying late after school to crank out campus updates from the classroom, aspiring journalists can now head home and spin the news from the comfort of their own bedrooms. And a growing number are doing just that.

Students are turning out newspapers--some with literary or musical themes, others with a more political bent--in record numbers these days. Over the past five years, the number of underground student periodicals has climbed by 400 percent, according to Mark Goodman, the director of the Student Press Law Center, an Arlington, Va.-based research and advocacy organization for student journalists. While they vary widely in quality and content, Goodman estimates that more than 1,000 unofficial high school periodicals are now in circulation.

Aside from the personal computer, Goodman says, the most significant impetus behind the boom in independent student publishing is the increased censorship of the school-sponsored paper.

In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that granted school administrators greater authority to censor school newspapers. The ruling said school officials need only show that they have some "reasonable educational justification" to censor them. Underground presses, which can operate outside the ruling and administrators' control, have thrived as a result.

But school officials have not always welcomed these new members of the Fourth Estate.

A Free Student Press

When Chrissy Kistler launched the first issue of Vanguard with two other literary-minded juniors in the fall of 1992, she didn't expect it to create such a stir.

The six-page premier issue featured poetry, an article about student rights to free expression, and art nouveau illustrations from old clip art books. The first edition cost $16, which covered photocopying and rubber cement. Chrissy paid for it out of her salary from Burger King.

But Enloe Principal Bobby Allen found one Vanguard article, featuring a list of "your mama" jokes, distasteful. And soon after the piece ran, he started enforcing a long-ignored Wake County school district policy to review student publications before they are distributed on campus.

Chrissy, now a sophomore at North Carolina State University, defended the jokes. The president of the school's African-American Cultures Club submitted them as part of an article about reverse discrimination. Obviously, the jokes were not meant to be offensive.

She objected to the administrative review, claiming the process created a bottleneck in Vanguard's production schedule. But Allen ignored her plea. So, the editors researched their legal options. And in May 1994, Chrissy, several other students, and their parents appealed to the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a lawsuit against the district and the principal charging that the policy violated the students' First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Last year, after months of negotiation, the district reached a settlement that allowed the students to publish free from prior review as long they do not distribute during class periods.

The settlement, which the students claimed as a victory, has been a boon to the underground newspaper scene at Enloe High. Two other independent newspapers--Glass Butterfly and Spare Ribs--now compete with Vanguard for readership.

But Vanguard has already enjoyed unusual longevity among student journals. The average lifespan of an underground high school paper is between one and two issues, according to Goodman. Most are printed only once, usually as a response to a particular issue or event. Only 5 percent of them last a year or more.

But now concluding its third year, Vanguard shows no sign of shutting down. Guzzling jumbo-sized coffees at an outdoor cafe, Vanguard editors Owen and Andy are already training their successors.

April Weeks, a 10th grader whose poems are a regular feature in Vanguard, is a little apprehensive about assuming editorial control. "I'm scared out of my wits," she whispers. "I want to be worthy of it."

But freshman Will Snyder, sporting a black baseball hat with a swat team logo, seems ready to take the helm. He already knows what editorial changes he will make. For one, he'll limit the number of poems about love and death and expand the amount of reader commentary. He's concerned about expenses though, especially if they won't be able to rely on Andy's father to supply the photocopies free of charge next year. Andy, who will start college next fall, says he'll ask his parents.

None of these editors say they intend to pursue a career in journalism after they graduate. Still, they all say the experience has helped them appreciate the power of the written word.

Will and April promise their mentors that they will be true to Vanguard's philosophy of featuring a range of student voices. But the new editors intend to put their own stamp on the paper.

"We will try to publish tolerance and not intolerance," Will says. "We hope it will be educational."

Vol. 14, Issue 37

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