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The Missing Graduates 

Four seniors barred from ceremony over underground newspaper

Wednesday, Jun 28 2000
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Four seniors -- barred from graduation for their roles in an underground campus newspaper -- lost their last-minute court bid to attend commencement ceremonies at Palisades Charter High School. Last week‘s ruling, handed down a day before graduation, sustained the right of school officials to punish students involved with the Occasional Blow Job, a biting, incendiary broadsheet that has roiled the Westside campus for four months. In all, 11 students were suspended, and, a few weeks later, a handful were permanently booted out of Palisades High.

On its face, the ruling, by federal District Judge Lourdes Baird, was at odds with Baird’s previous action in a nearly identical case involving another Palisades High student and the OBJ. On May 2, Baird concluded that Jeremy Meyer, one of the students expelled for “contribution to unauthorized material,” had not shed his constitutional rights upon entering school grounds. And in a preliminary injunction dated June 5, she wrote, “The use of the word ‘Fuck’ is protected speech under the First Amendment . . . Because [profanities] would be protected ‘outside of the campus’ they are protected ‘inside.’” On that basis, she ordered Meyer reinstated at Palisades.

Fast-forward to Wednesday, June 21, when four other seniors also asked Judge Baird to allow them to join their schoolmates in receiving diplomas at graduation ceremonies the next day. Their attorney, civil rights specialist Carol Sobel, asserted that it was simply a matter of applying the same constitutional standards to Alex Arinsberg, Benjamin Klein, Gregory Strausberg and Adam Vourvoulis.

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“The articles these boys had written,” said Sobel, “dealt with issues of public concern. This was legitimate free speech, and the fact that they used profanity in some of the articles didn‘t seem to change the legal analysis -- particularly on a campus where the teachers have used profanity directed at the students.”

But what a difference 16 days make. Delivering a kind of commencement speech of her own -- stripped of the usual platitudes about sauntering forth as responsible citizens dedicated to doing well by doing good -- Judge Baird proclaimed, “There is a different standard with regard to First Amendment rights and free speech in a school setting. The school district has an interest in disciplining students for . . . offensive and lurid language.”

Judge Baird reasoned that Palisades principal Donald Savarese had the authority to banish the four young men from graduation ceremonies. “They do have a school to run,” she said. The school would suffer a greater harm if the boys appeared at graduation than the boys would suffer by being barred. “I don’t find that not participating in graduation is an irreparable harm,” she concluded.

At those words, senior Greg Strausberg, the only student in court, lowered his head and quickly exited the courtroom. Demoralized, he stood silently outside, peering off into the middle distance. “In a week, it will all seem like the past, it won‘t matter,” said attorney Sobel, offering a bit of perspective. Strausberg said nothing.

Judge Baird never made it clear exactly what distinguished the actions of Meyer, who got his reprieve, from the others’. Meyer‘s “contribution” to the OBJ was a March 9 e-mail he sent to the paper, an e-mail he did not expect to see in print. The 250-word paragraph appeared the next day under the headline “I just Don’t Understand.” It was signed “Fuck You,” a pseudonym furnished by the editors. At the time, rumors were spreading through the campus that students were being suspended for involvement with the paper. “The one thing I‘m really confused about,” Meyer wrote, “is why are kids suspended at this school for taking part in a tabloid that made a teacher cry, but if a teacher makes a student cry, there are no repercussions?” This was free speech, Judge Baird said in early June, including the “Fuck You” part.

For his part, Arinsberg had furnished a brief cartoon series, the tale of Joe and Ginger, a Binky-ish pair bored with school, playing hooky, getting caught and having a run-in with the LAPD, captioned “Sexual Abuse by the L.A.P.D. (True Story).” It ran in two issues.

Klein penned two satires. The first -- and better -- one was titled “Naked Girls in Mercer Hall.” He proposed strip clubs on campus to raise money for educational needs. “This would bring in much needed funds to buy more computers, that no one will use . . . Some people may oppose this, say ’This will bring a bad element into Palisades.‘ Obviously, they don’t give a shit about their kids and the future of our great nation. We could be the richest and happiest school in all of LAUSD.” It ended with a battle cry: “PUT STRIP CLUBS IN SCHOOLS ACROSS OUR CITY, OUR STATE, OUR COUNTRY!!!!!!!!!”

Vourvoulis wrote one article for the OBJ, “Save the Rainforest.” In it he asked, “Why is there braille on the drive-through ATM machines, are there blind people who drive, how the fuck do they find the bank?” (Comedian Chris Rock has made the same joke a thousand times.)

Strausberg‘s transgression -- helping to distribute two issues of the OBJ -- earned him a permanent “opportunity transfer” to Venice High.

“The plaintiffs,” Judge Baird decreed, “have all admitted to very obscene language. The articles do not have any redeeming value.” Baird, who barely three weeks before had seemed to grasp instinctively that the samizdat was a broadside against teachers who could be oppressive or dull, now adopted the view of wounded Palisades teachers and administrators. The judge, it seems, was concerned with the tranquillity of the campus, fearing -- as school officials did -- that the OBJ might disrupt what California Supreme Court Justice Matthew Tobriner once called “the placidity of vacant minds.”

Of course, those students who would upset the placidity of vacant minds often come in for the harshest treatment by teachers and principals who loathe independent, disputatious minds -- the very minds that thought up the Occasional Blow Job and passed it out in the first place.

At the hearing, Greg Strausberg -- dressed in a crisp white shirt, a gray-and-black-striped silk tie and dark slacks -- was prepared to testify on his own behalf. The closest he came was an interview with a reporter. Before the proceedings began, the 6-foot-2 17-year-old was poised, if a bit nervous. “I think about it every day,” he said, “that I don’t get to be at the school where I‘ve been for four years. I don’t get to graduate with my friends.”

“Everybody distributed it,” he said, talking about the newspaper. “I was the only one who admitted it, that‘s all. I realized it was wrong, that it went too far. I wrote an apology to all the teachers who were hurt. But their pride was hurt. So they had to make an issue of it. They had to show who had the bigger penis by punishing us.”

He added, “I know what happened to me is wrong. The dictatorship, otherwise known as the LAUSD, wants to control our school, to make a definitive statement that they have control.”

Los Angeles Unified School District staff counsel William Trejo declined to comment. But Strausberg, who is headed to San Diego State University, offered a coda to his brush with the legal system: “My unfair punishment has inspired me to become a lawyer.”

Judicial fiat cannot convert the OBJ into pornography, any more than administrative fiat can kill its message by shooting the messengers. Had the OBJ been lewd, and nothing else, then it would never have evoked the response it did. The vindictive punishment is proof enough that the administration at Palisades was stung where it hurts. Contrary to Judge Baird’s upside-down finding that the OBJ was obscene, the student newspaper was precisely what satire always is: a rebuke, cloaked in profanity, exaggeration, mockery.

And, as often happens, the satire was suppressed, making it more desirable. “If they knew anything about economics,” Strausberg said of the school officials‘ reaction to the OBJ, “they would understand: The more scarce you make it, the more demand there is for it.”

Palisades principal Donald Savarese may believe, as he told the court in a written declaration, that the Occasional Blow Job was “profane, obscene, promoted rape, bestiality and racism and in some articles [contained] an insinuation of violence and vandalism.”

To Greg Strausberg and his teenage peers, “All it did: It gave people something to talk about at nutrition and lunch.”

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