Speech — Wild and Free

A raucous, churlish, incendiary underground newspaper that appeared two months ago at Palisades High School is giving the teachers, administrators and students at the Westside campus a stark lesson in freedom of speech. The four-page samizdat, called The Occasional Blow Job, premiered on March 2, and 10 days later, angry school administrators ruled that the publication, which, among other things, facetiously denounced a “notorious, underground prostitution ring that many Palisades High faculty are currently running,” was verboten. Eleven students were suspended, and, a few weeks later, four of them were permanently booted out. Democracy, Palisades principal Donald Savarese and his staff seemed to think, stopped at the schoolhouse door.

And it did — until last week, when federal District Judge Lourdes Baird ruled that Jeremy Meyer, one of the four students expelled for “contribution to unauthorized material,” had not shed his constitutional rights upon entering school grounds. The judge issued a temporary restraining order, halting the district’s expulsion of Jeremy, pending a June 5 hearing.

Jeremy Meyer’s “contribution” was an e-mail he sent on March 9 to The OBJ. To his surprise, the 250-word paragraph appeared in print the next day, under the headline “I Just Don’t Understand,” and signed “Fuck You,” a pseudonym furnished by the editors. Rumors were spreading through the campus that students were being suspended for involvement with the paper. “The one thing I’m really confused about,” he 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?”

Judge Baird, believing that by law there must be no repercussions for the students, ordered the L.A. Unified School District to reinstate Jeremy. That was Tuesday, May 2.

Less than a week later, however, the 17-year-old senior was back in court, his First Amendment rights — and the rights of his fellow students — again in jeopardy. Janis Adams, Jeremy’s Contemporary Composition teacher, accused him of writing an OBJ item, “The Tale of the Diaper and the Porno,” “stating that I was a porno star,” Adams informed a state court in a written declaration filed May 8. Shanon Trygstad, an attorney furnished to Adams by the United Teachers of Los Angeles, told Superior Court Commissioner Bobbi Tillmon that “Jeremy has been threatening Ms. Adams for over a year, making verbal threats to intimidate her, using a hammer to punch holes in the walls of her classroom, saying that he would be ‘getting even.’ Those are dangerous words. Those words imply violence.”

That assertion, denied by Jeremy, persuaded Judge Tillmon to issue a temporary restraining order forbidding him from speaking to or being within five feet of Adams. A court hearing on a permanent order will be held May 24. Until then, if Adams enters a classroom when Jeremy is present, the judge ruled, “If practical, he must leave.”

Outside the Santa Monica courthouse, Jeremy, who attended the hearing (Adams did not), used one word to describe his near-six-week odyssey of suspension, expulsion, reinstatement and, now, a restraining order: “Frustration.”

The OBJ,” says Jeremy, who plans to attend the University of Arizona at Tucson this fall, “was a way for students to express angst and to talk about problems they were having with some of the teachers and to make fun of some of the things that happen at school. Each and every time, I have told the truth. I wrote one paragraph, and I guess because I am one of the few who actually admitted writing an article, they’re taking it out on me.”

Oddly, Jeremy Meyer’s candor, more than what he wrote in The OBJ, made him a target for retribution. Unluckily for him, Janis Adams was subjected to the cruelest of the cruel articles that ran in The OBJ. Adams was incensed, and she warned her 12th-grade class, according to the federal lawsuit, “that she intended to pursue criminal and civil charges against the student[s] who wrote the article.” While she was saying this, Jeremy says, Adams was “staring directly at me.” After class he tried to speak to Adams, but she ordered him out of her classroom. Worried, Jeremy went to the dean of students, Larry Marshall, and asked to drop the class. It was then that he volunteered that he’d written the one-paragraph note in the March 10 OBJ. That was that, or so it seemed.

Nervous school officials promised that all the students who’d been suspended would be back by Monday, March 20, but this turned out to be untrue. Fliers began circulating on campus on March 21, calling for a rally the next morning. Jeremy was a “suspect” in the eyes of the administration, and he was summoned to Dean Marshall’s office, where a deal was brokered between the dean, Jeremy and his father. If Jeremy agreed to stop handing out the leaflets and stayed away from the rally, he would not be suspended.

In fact, Jeremy stayed home the day of the rally. The phone rang. Channel 13 News reporter Gustavo Almodovar wanted an interview, and Jeremy consented. His on-air remarks consisted of one line, referring to The OBJ: “I think it raised the issue that students in a school campus don’t have the rights that we should.” The next morning, back at school, he was suspended. The vice principal and the dean both told Jeremy he was being suspended for appearing on the newscast.

A day later, in the company of his mother, Jeremy met with principal Savarese, who also mentioned the TV appearance and announced that Jeremy was being suspended for an additional five days. According to the federal suit, no reason was given for the suspension, except that it was “necessary . . . while the matter was ‘under investigation.’” Eventually, when the administrators were forced to put their reasons in writing, they claimed that Jeremy was ousted for “distribution of the flier promoting unlawful assembly/protest.” Of course, these were the very grounds on which Marshall had promised that Jeremy would not be suspended.

The five-day suspension elapsed, and Jeremy was told he was being “transferred” to Taft High School. An appeal of the transfer was denied, and that’s when civil rights attorney Carol Sobel went to federal court. “You have to wonder what’s going on here,” she said. “You’ve got a California Supreme Court decision that is nearly three decades old, protecting students’ free-speech rights. Doesn’t anybody at LAUSD look at the law?”

When Jeremy Meyer returned to school a week ago Thursday, under federal court order, his peers were, he said, “really happy. They felt something good had finally come out of all this.” The majority of teachers, meanwhile, “were bitter. They gave me the cold shoulder.”

The school district’s news release said it would follow the court order, but lamented that the “continued unauthorized dissemination of the publication over the past two months has become an unfortunate distraction to the educational process at this school.”

This is the dissonance, the unbridgeable gap, that The OBJ addressed. If the administration and some of the targeted teachers had tried to read between the lines — if they had let go of their own antipathy toward the suspected authors and, instead, eyed the words carefully — they might have realized a good deal of honesty lay hidden inside the invective.

Instead of forgiveness or understanding, those students merely suspended were forbidden, upon returning to school, from participating in graduation ceremonies, the prom, or any extracurricular activities. And those who received the harshest penalty — Jeremy Meyer and the three other seniors given “opportunity transfers” — had the added burden of figuring out exactly why they were singled out from among dozens of students involved in The OBJ contretemps. Greg Strausberg did no more than hand out a few copies of The OBJ after finding them one afternoon at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. He was ejected. David Belsky, an honors student with a full scholarship to Cornell, wrote one article, criticizing a teacher. He too was removed from the Pali roll book. Mike Burke suffered the same consequences for much the same deeds.

In the words of one parent, “The tragedy here is that a group of very smart kids were trying to be heard. Instead, they were punished.” As the parent leaders at Palisades put it in a letter to Interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines, school officials responded with “an iron fist.”

That letter, which was a plea to Cortines to ease off the prosecutorial zeal, concluded, “Our job as parents and educators is to raise individuals who will make good citizens — individuals who respect one another, who are willing to listen to all points of view, and who make careful, reasoned choices. How will our children get this message in light of the recent actions taken at Palisades Charter High School?” Good question.

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