A 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling makes it legal in many cases for school officials to block publication of a student article in the high school newspaper.
But Canon-McMillan High School officials are facing a constitutional tongue-lashing from a sophomore who's proclaiming violations of her First Amendment rights after her article about a dangerous choking game was blocked from publication in the C-M Times, the high-school newspaper.
Danielle Hibler, 15, of Cecil, a member of the C-M Times staff and high-school journalism class with goals of becoming a journalist, decried the decision to censor her article, "A Dangerous Game Exposed," which detailed the death of Kimberly Wilson, a 15-year-old girl from Lawrence, Kan., who opted to undergo oxygen deprivation as a means of getting high. Her story can be read online at www.kimberwilson.com.
"The vice principal cut the story from the paper. She put a big X on the first page," Danielle said. "I was upset about it."
Danielle's article, based on research she did on the Internet, quotes experts and law enforcement officials who describe the mortal dangers of the activity and say 1,000 juveniles a year die from it.
The teens believe it's a legal high and are doing nothing wrong, her article states, quoting Dr. Ashraf Atala, a child psychiatrist from Smyrna, Ga. He said the practice deprives the brain of oxygen, creating a high and placing a person at risk of suffocation or brain damage.
Danielle's article notes that choking-game deaths are on the rise and focused on the death of a 15-year-old girl. She said she began researching the topic after hearing fellow students say they'd tried it.
"I turned in the article, and everyone felt good about it," Danielle said after sharing her story with fellow students.
But when the newspaper sponsor submitted it to high-school officials for review, the article was blocked from publication. Angered by the decision, Danielle went to Assistant Principal Marella Kazos, who defended the decision.
That's when a determined Danielle suggested that the high school send a copy of the article to parents. That idea was nixed, but might have a second chance.
"The school has to represent the middle of the road," high-school Principal Linda Nichols said, noting that many parents prefer discussing sensitive and personal issues privately with their children.
Other concerns, she said, are assuring that medical information in the article is accurate and preventing copycat attempts of the behavior described in the article.
Yet Ms. Nichols applauded Danielle's effort to buck authority by going public with her goal to have the article published. She described Danielle as "a good kid."
"I like kids with a little vinegar in them who stand up and question government," Ms. Nichols said, noting that she was raised in the 1960s, when student protests were common. "Been there. Done that.
"But I like her idea of sending it home to parents, and I would consider putting her name on it."
For a report, timing is everything, Danielle said.
The day her story was banned, she went home to see news reports about the death of a 13-year-old Mt. Lebanon boy who was thought to have died from engaging in the choking game. The news reports confirmed her desire to educate students and parents about the activity.
News reports quoted the father, who said his son was in his bedroom and was supposed to be doing his homework when his mother found him blue and unresponsive on the bedroom floor.
The Mt. Lebanon boy, an eighth-grader in Jefferson Middle School whose name was not published, was believed to be the first documented choking-game victim in Allegheny County, although the cause of his death has not been determined.
His death prompted calls from his parents and school officials to educate parents and children about the risk.
The district sent a letter to parents explaining that a child had died and asking parents to be vigilant for signs of anxiety about the death in their children. The district also made counselors available to pupils.
Ms. Nichols and Canon-McMillan school officials have the law on their side in limiting free-speech rights of students such as Danielle, but the power is not absolute.
In a 1994 article, "Teaching Censorship," Kimberly Phillips describes a 1988 Supreme Court ruling that "specifically limits the free-press rights of students" in a Des Moines, Iowa, case where school officials blocked publication of an article about teen pregnancy and the effects of divorce on high-school students.
Ms. Phillips criticized the Supreme Court ruling as having "a chilling effect on high-school journalism." Neither students nor school officials understand the ambiguities of the rulings or its implications, which, she said, is interpreted falsely as full authority to ban any topic, including just criticism of school policies.
The ambiguity arises from the ruling, which says officials have control over student expression "as long as the actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns."
Facing censorship, Danielle, with full support of her parents, Dean and Karen Hibler, sent an e-mail to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, detailing her troubles in getting the timely article published, and she later provided a copy of the article.
The Hiblers said the C-M Times carries stories about smoking, teen pregnancy and one Danielle wrote about drinking alcohol which was published. They said students had no forum in the high school to discuss such issues.
"I think this was handled poorly," Danielle's father said, describing the article as an educational piece. "My wife and I suggested to her that if she felt strongly about this and felt it was an injustice, to stand up for her First Amendment rights. We wanted to see how far she could go on her own.
"My wife and I are behind her 100 percent," Mr. Hibler said. "We're proud of her."
David Templeton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-746-8652.