How Free is Speech?

When it Comes to Cannabis, One Student Newspaper is Censored

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects one of the most fundamental and precious rights of American citizens – the right to free speech. That extends, of course, to freedom of the press. But does it always? That’s the question being debated at Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Illinois after the school newspaper (The Evanstonian) published a two-page spread of articles about marijuana. The school’s administrators confiscated the newspaper because, they claimed, it glorified drug use and illegal behavior.

The articles in question were part of an “In-Depth” report called “The Pot Thickens,” and included an interview with an anonymous drug dealer and an article called “School Stress Causes Marijuana Usage.” The school’s superintendent Eric Witherspoon said, “Both articles promote illegal conduct that also violates school policy. For example, the Drug Dealer article states that a reason to sell marijuana is to make money, as much as $160 per ounce. The School Stress article states that using marijuana makes a student funnier and more confident. The article goes on to state that a ‘feeling of euphoria and bliss’ is caused by a chemical in marijuana.”

Is all speech protected? The answer is no, as evidenced by the fact that you’re not free to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater if there is actually no fire. According to the Newseum Institute, there are nine categories of “unprotected speech.” They are: obscenity, fighting words, defamation (including libel and slander), child pornography, perjury, blackmail, incitement to imminent lawless action, true threats, and solicitations to commit crimes. Principal Marcus Campbell maintains that the material “incites students to commit an unlawful act or to violate policies of the school district.”

The Evanstonian’s News Editor Trinity Collins disagrees with Principal Campbell.  “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.”

The paper’s executive editor, Michael Colton, agrees with Collins. “All stories printed were of student voice, we surveyed students, we got their opinions on the matter, there were no editorials inviting students to use marijuana to romanticizing the use of marijuana in any way,” he said

Margo Levitan, the paper’s Online Executive Editor said, “Marijuana is a part of student culture here, and we decided to take advantage of our free speech as a part of the Evanston community. We decided to use our student platform to professionally report on a relevant topic. We hope that Evanston’s message of free speech would apply to student voices as well, even if the subject is considered taboo.”