the decomposing cesspool of Buffalo's public schools, City Honors
has long been regarded as something of a gem. In fact, it is widely
regarded as the best school the city has to offer, with the brightest
Evola and David Hughes are two of those kids, seniors at City Honors
this year. While most high school seniors are content to coast through
their final year, these two decided to do something creative. Bored
stiff with their school newspaper, they endeavored to make their own.
They anonymously wrote, edited, and printed their paper, the Liberator,
entirely on their own time and without using any school resources,
and it was a hit with their classmates. It was harsh, funny, opinionated,
and actually pretty well written. They made fun of fellow students,
the "official" school paper, and, of course, the faculty
at City Honors.
have to say, the biggest surprise of this story, for me, is the fact
that the Liberator is really a pretty great paper, especially for
a couple of 17-year-olds. In my perusal of its three existing issues,
I found myself cracking up more than a few times. There's even some
decent political ranting. In fact, I'd have to say the tone and content
of the Liberator resembles no other paper so much as
too surprisingly, by the third issue, they were in deep shit.
Well, their most obvious mistake was putting themselves on the back
cover of issue 3, thus enabling their stereotypically oppressive and
hypocritical principal, Dr. Cathy Battaglia, to identify them. As
the highest authority figure in their societal microcosm, Bataglia
was a natural target of vehement derision in the Liberator. While
she insists to the young editors that their criticism of her is not
the reason for it, she has suspended both of them for a week, despite
what Matt and David say is a total lack of outrage on the part of
their fellow students. In fact, a considerable number of students
assembled in protest of the suspensions and signed petitions to the
effect that they supported the Liberator's right to exist, along with
the First Amendment.
why were they suspended? "They refused to tell us exactly what
we were in trouble for, but seditious libel, harassment, and defamation
were all charges they used verbally," says Evola.
libel? Let me tell you something about the antiquated charge of seditious
libel. According to Professor David McHam of the Unversity of Houston,
"in effect, any comment about the government that could be construed
to have the bad tendency of lowering it in the public esteem or of
disturbing the peace was seditious libel." Truth was not a defense
against the charge. In fact, McHam says, "the theory was that
the truth of a libel made it even worse because it was more provocative,
thereby increasing the tendency to breach the peace or hold the government
up to ridicule. What grew out of this was the saying, 'The greater
the truth, the greater the libel.'"
libel hasn't been a realistic charge since the late 18th century.
When it was, it was used to censor the press, to stifle coverage of
government wrongdoing. The sheer ugliness of leveling such a charge
against these high school kids is outweighed only by the total silliness
probably why it didn't pass the vetting process. "On paper we
were suspended for harassment and defamation of individuals,"
Evola told me. "When I asked who, I was told it didn't matter."
did these kids do to incur such serious charges? They made fun of
people. A couple of students, a few members of the faculty. Some of
the stuff is a little over the top, but clearly meant in jest.
Battaglia, however, is pretty damn serious about it. Attempts to contact
her were unsuccessful-she didn't return my calls. I did manage to
talk to School District Spokesman Andrew Maddigan, though. Maddigan
indicated that the Superintendent was in full support of Battaglia's
decision to punish the kids.
the justification he gave me was based on a school commitment to "diversity
and tolerance and respect for difference." It would seem, however,
that this tolerance and respect for difference doesn't extend to Evola
and Hughes. Apparently, their tendency to curse and make fun negates
the faculty's obligation to respect or tolerate their differences.
championed the parents' point of view-that is , the parents of the
kids that the Liberator has singled out for ridicule. "If your
kid is made fun of, you'd want it to stop."
of course, Maddigan raised the specter of Columbine. Not that the
Liberator staff were possible school shooters, but that the students
they mocked in their paper might lose it and unleash a hailstorm of
hot lead on City Honors. It's a hell of an image, but it's simply
unreasonable. You could use a justification like that to stop almost
anyone from doing almost anything. For instance, you could stop kids
from dating, on the off chance that someone might flip out and kill
someone for dumping them, cheating on them, or just not putting out.
at the Beast, we know a little something about this attitude. Not
a week goes by around here that we don't get an angry letter from
someone that includes a variation of the phrase, "I'm all for
free speech, but
said it before, but it bears repetition: there is nothing in the constitution
regarding a right to not be offended. Good manners kill comedy; they
strangle it dead. Just look at Bob Saget.
for example, the illustration in the third issue of the Liberator
of a Puerto Rican teacher running a foot race with a burrito dangling
from a stick in front of him. Sure, it's an offensive stereotype-unless
you have a sense of humor. In fact, the only thing that makes this
picture funny is just how offensive it is. It is absurd; the very
thought of taking this seriously makes me laugh. The teacher himself
laughed it off, according to Evola and Hughes.
do you make this joke innocuous? You don't. Removing the offensive
component leaves you with no joke at all, just a teacher standing
there. That's the thing about comedy; it has no friends. If you're
going to be funny, really funny, you have to forget about people's
feelings; you have to discard them as you would a toilet paper tube.
The Beast has been accused of racism, homophobia, misogyny, you name
it, just because we believe in picking on every target available with
equal vigor. The irony is that we, like these kids, are really the
nicest guys you'd ever want to meet.
me, there was only one issue: "The thing is, none of the stuff
in this paper would be illegal or punishable in the real world. So
the only thing at issue here is whether, because these kids are minors,
or handing this paper out on school grounds, they're subject to a
different set of rules than the rest of us."
Maddigan replied, "because state education law does allow for
publications printed off premises to be distributed, but we are allowed
to regulate it."
this is true, in that the school is allowed to set rules about when
and how the paper is distributed, but can they simply ban it? Furthermore,
can they actually punish the kids who made it, just for making it?
according to the New York Civil Liberties Union, which has picked
up the Liberator's cause. They see this as a clear First Amendment
issue, and plan to go to the wall for the kids. According to them,
the Liberator constitutes protected speech, even if it were a KKK
be on hand on Wednesday, when Matt and David will attend a hearing
regarding their suspension. The Beast will provide an update on the
situation as soon as new facts come to light.
for the fledgling underground journalists, they're surprisingly undaunted:
"We're working on the next one already," Matt says. "And
hopefully using the time off to make a website."
the spirit, guys. If the college thing doesn't work out, we're always
looking for help around here.