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National Perspective | Education

Students Give, Get Lesson in 1st Amendment Protections

April 06, 1998|MIKE CLARY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — The 20-page handwritten pamphlet was crude, offensive and in poor taste. Everyone, including the high school students who wrote it, agree on that.

Not only was the underground publication rife with profanity and racial epithets, but the principal, Timothy Dawson, was depicted engaging in a sex act. Moreover, one essayist mused, "I often have wondered what would happen if I shot Dawson in the head."

But did that constitute a threat on the principal's life? Should the students--five girls and four boys--have been charged with hate crimes, arrested and jailed? And just what are the free-speech rights of children in public schools?

Those questions still reverberate in Miami, six weeks after the Killian High School students who wrote "First Amendment" spent the night in jail, were suspended and later expelled.

Both the contents of the pamphlet and the punishment meted out continue to fuel lively debate here, especially after a local weekly paper, New Times, reprinted "First Amendment" under the headline: "Why are we showing you the contents of the Killian High pamphlet? Because we can!"

Constitutional scholar Donald M. Jones, a law professor at the University of Miami, said the flap over the publication shows that "we still have a vast reservoir of immaturity when it comes to discussions of race and free speech."

Jones said jailing the students was indefensible. "We can't prevent people from thinking in ways that are prejudiced and hateful," Jones said. "There shouldn't be thought crimes in 1998."

Indeed, officials refused to prosecute the students, saying the 1945 Florida law under which they were charged is "unconstitutional and unenforceable." But state Atty. Katherine Fernandez Rundle did comment that she found the pamphlet contained "language and drawings of an outrageous and highly offensive nature."

The arrests and expulsions have alarmed civil libertarians.

"This is an extreme overreaction. I've never heard of high school students being jailed for distributing a pamphlet," said Mark Goodman, an attorney and executive director of the Student Press Law Center, a Washington-based group that provides legal advice to student publications. "There is no question this is material many people would be offended by. But a threat? You have to look at who these students are."

Seven of the so-called Killian Nine are being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, which has vowed to sue the school system for false arrest. "What is going on around the country is a tendency to think that kids don't have rights, or have fewer rights," said Howard Simon executive director of the ACLU's Florida chapter.

"But the 1st Amendment does not stop at the schoolhouse door."

*

Killian, with an enrollment of 4,000, is considered one of the top high schools in South Florida. All of the students involved in producing "First Amendment" were members of the school's art club, and several were on the honor roll.

One of the Killian Nine, 18-year-old David Morales, said he and the others have apologized for the pamphlet and added that they had no malicious intent. "Anybody with an IQ over 5 could see the pamphlet was a satire," Morales told the Miami Herald.

But neither Dawson nor school administrators saw it that way. After being provided the names of the Killian Nine, Dawson called school police and had them arrested, saying: "They have threatened to kill me."

And school system administrators have taken a hard line. "This is racial, profane, obscene," commented Deputy Supt. Henry Fraind. "Does that bother anyone except us?"

About 2,500 copies of "First Amendment" were printed, but it is unclear how many were distributed.

"The pamphlet ran the gamut of expression, from painful efforts at self-examination to romantic poetry to blunt criticism of school policies," said New Times Editor Jim Mullin. "And much of it was admirable for its literary ambition. Yes, there was some obscenity, and the principal took his share of hits. But death threats? Get real."

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