Sunday, March 25, 2001

Free speech

Who needs the lesson at Walnut?

        There was a kid outside the window in a tree and, without listening very hard, they could hear other protesters. But the students in the principal's office at Walnut Hills High School were trying to stick to the point.

        Their point was freedom of the press, and they weren't kidding around, even though their school newspaper, the Chatterbox, was shut down last week because of its humor page. The three senior editors — Philip Ewing, Sarah Gale and Diana Claybon — came prepared.

        “We even planned where we would sit,” Diana says. Philip, the designated spokesman, sat at one end of a table opposite Marvin O.Koenig, the principal.

        They had not come to beg. “We'd like our paper back, please,” Philip said.

Detention stinks

        They'd consulted an attorney at the Student Press Law Center. Very decent people, they'd even examined their consciences. “Did we mean to hurt anybody?” Diana asks. “That was never our intention. The newspaper is a forum for opinion.”

        The opinion of humor editor Sean Krebs is that detention stinks and is unfairly administered by Dr. Gerald Houghton, an assistant principal, whom he lampooned with references to Pokemon, Batman and Austin Powers.

        The next day, Mr. Koenig shut the newspaper down.

        And while a young man in Cincinnati climbed a tree in support of free speech and three of his classmates sat around a table armed with attitude and opinion, an 18-year-old student at Granite Hills High School shot and wounded three classmates and two teachers.

        What was going through that boy's mind? Or the mind of a 15-year-old charged with killing two classmates and injuring 13 in the same San Diego school district. What were they thinking?

School spirit

        Readers of the Chatterbox know what Walnut students think about gun control, the KKK, the homeless, presidential pardons. And thanks to Mr. Koenig, students can quote from at least two Supreme Court decisions and speak knowledgeably about First Amendment protection.

        “I love Walnut,” Sarah says, “but Mr. Koenig wants us to be cheerleaders. And we want to tell the truth, even if it's not what he wants to hear.”

        Diana says they wanted to “get this settled before we go.” Philip is headed for the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, Diana to the University of Pennsylvania and Sarah to Northwestern or the University of Virginia.

        No matter where they go, if they're like legions of other Walnut grads they're more likely to brag about their high school than their college. Mr. Koenig loves Walnut Hills, too, but says he thinks its newspaper should be “more sensitive.”

        In my experience, when somebody disagrees with you, but they don't have any good reasons, they'll accuse you of insensitivity every time. Mr. Koenig reinstated the newspaper “seven minutes after we started talking,” according to Philip.

        If Mr. Koenig really believes the paper poses a threat to “legitimate pedagogical concerns,” the basis for closing it, he should have stuck to his guns. Unless he was just trying to throw a scare into these rather fearless young journalists. Which would probably be illegal.

        “I don't think these students have grown one iota,” Mr. Koenig said.

        I think he's wrong. I think they have learned a lot. I just hope they're not the only ones.

       E-mail Laura at or call 768-8393.


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