Reporter’s Notebook: How free should speech be?

By Nicholas Williams, 17, Daniel Murphy HS
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Upon hearing that 11 students were suspended for publishing an underground newspaper at Palisades High School, my first thought was "How stupid." Isn’t the point of an underground newspaper to be secretive? How did 11 kids get caught? What was inside this paper that would lead 11 students to suspension? I figured the paper was talking about drugs, raunchy music, raves and places teenagers shouldn’t go but they go anyway.

When I actually saw a copy of the paper, titled The Occasional BJ or OBJ (referring to oral sex), my jaw dropped. One headline read, "Administration is a bunch of F——– Dirty Liars." Another article was an explicit poem about oral sex. There was a picture of a baby holding up its middle finger—I must admit I laughed when I saw it. It was like Howard Stern was behind it. Everything was really offensive just to get a joke out of being crude.

Another article claimed "Teachers turned me to Satan." In other issues of the OBJ, one teacher was labeled a child beater who hit on cheerleaders, another teacher was said to have been in a porn movie and another was called a drunk. An article in the OBJ posed the question, "Are we criminals, or are we geniuses trying to express ourselves?"

The OBJ got started in February, according to Mike Burke, one of the students expelled. Some students, bored in class, began typing ideas, jokes and complaints about problems with school on computers while the teacher wasn’t paying attention. Students who wanted to participate sent in their articles via e-mail. By March 1, the first issue of the OBJ was published as a kind of senior prank.

People had different reactions.

"Everybody thought it was funny," said Mike.

Senior Lara Levherz disagreed. "I thought it was pathetic. I know they are capable of so much more, because they are such cool kids, so I think it wasn’t funny at all. Basically every teacher in the school was talked about."

Lara said she saw a teacher crying in humiliation after she read the newspaper.

Janis Adams, an English teacher who was described in the OBJ as a diaper-wearing porn star, said, "I felt betrayed and raped … I’m a human being, not just a teacher."

She added, "There are girls I teach who are 13 and 14 and they have read this filth. The First Amendment was never intended for this."

The OBJ, which this student is reading at a local coffee shop, has generated controversy at Palisades High School.

Soon, the administration suspended 11 students and gave four an "opportunity transfer"—that means they were expelled and had to transfer to another school. Nick, a Pali student who didn’t want to give his last name, said, "At one point, you could have been suspended just for having a copy of the OBJ." The OBJ’s e-mail account was shut down. Mike Burke was expelled on March 7 and he hasn’t returned to school since.

Adams, who said she plans to continue teaching at the school, said Mike and another student, Jeremy Meyer, have harassed her for the past year. She said she believes they are responsible for obscene phone calls and hang-ups to her home, breaking her car window and being disruptive in class, including putting a hole in the wall with a hammer. That is why she has restraining orders against both students requiring them to stay away from her.

Adams said she is convinced that Mike and Jeremy are two of the main people behind the OBJ. "I just know. Students told me, they told people, and things I said in class wound up in the paper."

She said it scares her, knowing that these students have her home address. "Now that these boys are away from me, I feel better. I don’t think they are far from the Columbine students. They are dangerous and can physically harm someone."
Adams also described Mike as "emotionally disturbed."

Mike said Adams was "crazy" and was lying about all these things. He added he was under emotional distress and getting psychiatric care, but he was not dangerous. "The worst I’ve ever done was probably cheat on a test," said Mike.

He said he and students Greg Strausberg, David Belesky and Jeremy Meyer were expelled because they were popular and the administration wanted to make an example of them to discourage the publication of the underground newspaper.

Mike said it was silly to compare the OBJ to the killings at Columbine. "They were punishing us for something they thought we were going to do. After a while, rumors turn into facts. It wasn’t right, we were being punished for saying how we feel. It’s like our feelings don’t matter on campus."

He said he thinks administrators reacted so harshly because of a generation gap. "Our humor is different from the teachers at our school. The kids thought it was funny."

After the suspensions, about 400 students walked out in protest, saying the punishment was too harsh.

"I don’t think they should have been expelled. What they did was not right, but it served a purpose," of getting the administration to pay more attention to student complaints, said Amber Held, 15, a sophomore at the school.

"People who have brought drugs to school get suspended, but someone who writes their ideas on a piece of paper and hands it out, gets expelled. It’s not right," said Andy Hawkes, 18, who participated in the walkout.

"It kind of makes them a martyr for what they did," said Nick.

The walkout drew a media frenzy. Television stations, the Los Angeles Times, the Palisadian Post and the New York Times covered the story.

Administrators called in Jeremy Meyer, one of the four students transferred, after he gave an interview. "I was on channel 13, and all I said was how the students were treated unfairly." Jeremy admitted that he had in fact written an article in the OBJ. "I was being honest. I didn’t think it was a big deal," said Jeremy. Jeremy’s lawyer has since filed a restraining order against the school district allowing Jeremy to return to school temporarily. He said, "A lot of the teachers are bitter, but the students welcome me."

One teacher refused to allow Jeremy in his class, according to the Palisadian Post.

After Jeremy returned to school, Ms. Adams and her lawyer went to court and got a restraining order requiring him to stay five feet away from her. She said that he was the one who wrote the article describing her as a porn star. He said that he wrote a one-paragraph article stating, "The one thing I’m really confused about is why are students suspended at this school for taking part in a tabloid that made a teacher cry, but if a teacher makes a student cry there are no repercussions?"

Mike’s lawyer also is working to help Mike return to school. "To prove to them they were wrong, that’s why I’m fighting to get back into Pali," said Mike.

Meanwhile, the underground newspaper has continued to publish. They’ve published eight issues so far, though Mike Burke said he’s no longer involved.

Many students said that the underground paper has made the administration pay more attention to student complaints. "There’s a new committee now that is evaluating teachers. They hand out flyers saying ‘If there is something wrong, tell us about it.’ We have more voice now. We weren’t being heard. Now we realize we need to be respected and the teachers need to be respected also," said Amber Held, 15. She added that she admires the students who created the OBJ. "I think people look up to them because they are the only ones who have the guts to do something like this. I have a lot of respect for them. The school has become better because of them."

However, Ms. Adams said "It’s sadder at Palisades … It has taken a lot of energy from everyone. It has ruined the class of 2000 at Pali." She described Mike Burke as "some crazed Pied Piper who everyone is following."

Many Palisades High students said that they were very unhappy with some of the teachers at their school. Kier McMichael, a junior, described being verbally abused by teachers many times. "I’ve been called names by teachers, like c— sucker, loser, I’ve been told ‘Why are you here?’ ‘You’re the dumbest person here.’ "

In a column in the Los Angeles Times, Mary Redclay, an English teacher at Pali, confirmed that there have been instances where teachers are verbally abusive and are not teaching the kids at all.

"We don’t have any protection but the teachers do. We need the teachers to know we are not the bad guys," said Monica Arnold, 18, a Pali student who attended the student walkout.

Mike Burke said the OBJ carried an important message, saying that the teachers who were mocked in the paper were "rightfully made fun of." "They were teachers who made students cry, they were teachers who shouldn’t be teachers in the first place." He added that not all teachers at Palisades High are bad. "I have some teachers who have become like close friends."

Mike, who had been president of the student government and a football player, said he felt angry that he was accused of being the ringleader even though he said he only wrote a poem for the OBJ. "The teachers loved me. I was school president; I was kind of a kiss-up. But once I got kicked out, they thought all the rumors that I started the newspaper were true."

Mike also said he was punished because he refused to tell administrators the names of other students who were involved. During his suspension, he’s been taking independent study classes to make up credits. He hopes to be able to return to Pali before the end of the year to graduate with his class. If he doesn’t graduate, he may not be able attend Trinity University in Ireland as he had planned.

Despite everything he’s been through, Mike does not regret being involved with the OBJ. "They shouldn’t be able to censor us. Everyone has their own opinion. Everything written was legal."

Said Mark Goodman, attorney at the Student Press Law Center, "Usually when students feel they have a voice, they don’t turn to this kind of publication. The problem is that they felt this was the only avenue available to them … As mean and hateful as some of these statements were, in this country we don’t have the right to punish people for hurting our feelings. I don’t want to minimize the hurt and frustration that any teacher would feel, but I don’t think you can minimize the reasons that this happened in the first place. We’re not solving the problem by throwing away these students, kicking them out of school."

Calls to Pali principal Don Savarese went unreturned. Sheldon Erlick, the communications officer of the LAUSD said, "He [Principal Savarese] is trying to run the school. All this media attention has disrupted the school."

Erlick also said: "There are lessons to be learned all around. One, teachers need to listen to the students’ concerns, and second, students need to know there are responsible ways to communicate."

The Student Press Law Center and the Newspaper Association of America Foundation have published a great resource book called The Starting Point: Young Journalists and the Law. Written for the teen journalist, it explains concepts like libel and invasion of privacy. For copies, call the Newspaper Association of America at (703) 902-1729 or go to their online order form.

For information or to purchase "Law of the Student Press" contact the Student Press Law Center at 1815 N. Fort Myer Dr. Ste. 900, Arlington VA 22209-1817; (703) 807-1904; e-mail; Web site