Illinois High School Confiscates Student Paper Over Marijuana Story
- Samuel Breslow
A high school paper was confiscated by administrators who disapproved of two articles exploring why students smoke marijuana.
The staff of The Evanstonian, the student newspaper of Evanston Township High School, which serves a northern suburb of Chicago, had already started distributing its Sept. 22 edition when one of their executive editors was pulled into the office of English Department Chair Samoane Jones and informed that they had to remove it from distribution racks and take down the online version. One of the staff members said he was even blocked by a school police officer from delivering a stack of the papers.
The paper's staff said they were initially not offered any substantive explanation or justification for the confiscation. Jones, through the district's attorney, declined the SPLC's request for an interview.
These are the pages that sparked the confiscation. The SPLC did not obtain the edition from the journalism students or their adviser.
Principal Marcus Campbell, in a statement emailed to the SPLC Oct. 12, said the issue contained two articles promoting marijuana use.
He pointed to one article, a Q&A with a drug dealer, which addressed how much money a person can make selling marijuana, as evidence of promoting illegal behavior. While the dealer does tell the interviewer how much money they make, they do not advise anyone to start selling the drug. Also, the article neither endorses nor condemns the behavior of the dealer; it just quotes them.
Campbell noted that the second article in question, headlined "School Stress Causes Marijuana Usage," includes a quote from an interviewee about how "using marijuana makes a student funnier and more confident." As with the previous quote, it is neither endorsed nor condemned by the paper. Campbell also referenced a line in the article stating that the chemical THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, causes a "feeling of euphoria and bliss," which appeared as part of a section summarizing research on THC's effects.
The paper's staff have cited Illinois's Speech Rights of Student Journalists Act in their defense. The law, passed last year as part of the SPLC's New Voices initiative, requires administrators to provide justification before censoring a story. There is no record of them having done so.
It also restricts high schools from from censoring student publications except in a narrow range of specific circumstances. The exception Campbell cites is for material that "incites students to commit an unlawful act [or] to violate policies of the school district."
News Editor Trinity Collins argued that this exception does not apply to the articles, because both were impartial pieces of reporting, not opinion pieces. "Our purpose in printing these stories was to try to discover why so many students smoke or use marijuana," she said, speaking at a district school board meeting. "[It] was not to promote any usage or condone illegal activity."
Three of The Evanstonian's other student editors also spoke at this meeting on Oct. 9 to condemn the confiscation.
Executive Editor Katy Donati said the confiscation was "heartbreaking, especially knowing all the work that every single writer put into these stories." She said that members of the paper had met with Campbell to show him the articles before printing the issue and that he had approved them at the time.
Michael Colton, another Executive Editor, asked that the board "respect not only [our rights under] state law, but also our student rights in an inclusive and free-speaking community, to distribute our paper, to choose our own content, and to really express ourselves as we see fit in the community."
Two legal experts who have been giving advice to the paper also spoke to the board.
Stan Zoller, a prominent journalist and journalism educator in the region, said the incident sets a troubling precedent for civic engagement. "Confiscation of newspapers is not found in free and responsible societies, but in those where government leaders have disdain for a free and independent press and relish suppression of citizen voices," said Zoller, who spoke on behalf of the Illinois Journalism Education Association, the Chicago Headline Club and the Midwest Journalism Education Initiative.
Maryam Judar, the executive director of the Citizen Advocacy Center, said the confiscation was illegal. She told the SPLC that the district may try to rely on the precedent set by the 2007 Morse v. Frederick Supreme Court decision, in which the court ruled 5-4 that schools are allowed to prohibit students from promoting the use of illegal drugs.
However, she said that decision may have become dated in the past decade. "As the country's conversations start to change, so might society's expectations of what's allowable at the high school," she said. "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?"
Members of The Evanstonian's editorial staff met with administrators Oct. 13, three weeks after the confiscation.
At that meeting, the administration agreed to allow the paper to publish the articles if they were modified to include content warning of the dangers of marijuana usage.
Colton, in an interview with the SPLC, said he was pleased by this outcome, although he expressed some reservations about giving up editorial independence.
"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."
Colton said he hopes that school officials will embrace The Evanstonian's free press rights in keeping with the school's progressive values. "When our own free speech as a publication is violated, that contradicts everything that they have laid down for us as students, everything that they have taught us to fight for and to expect in the building," he said.
Article and image(s) from: SPLC