One former and two current students of Nelsonville-York High School will be honored tonight by the American Civil Liberties Union's Southeast Ohio Chapter, for their involvement in putting out a controversial student newspaper.
Current N-Y seniors Mike Lannan and Jacob Thomas, along with recent graduate Devin Aeh, have been chosen by the ACLU as recipients of the "Victor Goedicke Courageous Advocate Award," named after a long-time local civil rights champion, now deceased. The students will receive the award at the Southeast Ohio Chapter's annual dinner tonight, at the Ohio University Inn.
The student publication, Lockdown, made local headlines this year and last, after students involved in starting the paper were told by school officials that they faced suspension if a second issue was distributed. At the time Aeh, one of the main organizers of Lockdown and among those facing possible suspension, was carrying a perfect 4.0 grade point average, and in line to be her class valedictorian. This status would have been put at risk if she had been forced to take time off school for a suspension.
The newspaper, which was put together on the students' own time and off school grounds, was apparently considered inflammatory by Nelsonville-York school administrators, though they refused to comment on it publicly.
The first issue contained some supposedly off-color language, criticized various school policies, and included some tongue-in-cheek suggestions for pranks and disruptive activities that students could try at school.
At this point, the ACLU of Ohio stepped in to negotiate with the school, leading to an agreement under which the students were able to distribute the second issue of the paper across the street from the school, and no one got suspended. Aeh graduated last May, as co-valedictorian.
The dispute over the paper attracted media attention both locally and elsewhere, including coverage by the Student Press Law Center, a national organization concerned with student press freedom issues. At the time the second issue of Lockdown was distributed, Athens NEWS Publisher Bruce Mitchell editorialized in support of the students, arguing that "rather than fight the young journalists, Nelsonville-York should give them extra credit. The young people taught the students and adults in their community an important lesson on what freedom means."
Eliot Kalman, president of the ACLU's Southeast Ohio Chapter, praised the students in a press release Monday. "The country is in good hands with future leaders like this," Kalman stated. "School administrators, like all legitimate government authority, should be respected, but when they fail in their duty to adhere to constitutional limits, they lose their legitimacy and authority."
Featured speaker at the local ACLU dinner will be Steven R. Shapiro, legal director of the national ACLU. Shapiro, a graduate of Harvard Law School, is also an adjunct professor of constitutional law at Brooklyn Law School. He specializes in free speech issues.
As ACLU legal director, Shapiro supervises a staff of nearly 50 lawyers who take on hundreds of civil rights cases around the country. The ACLU routinely takes part in more U.S. Supreme Court cases each year than any other private organization.
In 1987, Shapiro argued and won a case before the Supreme Court that limited the power of government to exclude foreign speakers from the United States because of their political views.
The ACLU dinner will begin at 6 p.m. For tickets, call 592-2940.