Lock and Load High, Part III:
Marc Jason Gilbert, History Department, North Georgia College
This paper was presented at the Sixties Generations conference, March 1993, Fairfax, VA.
Student government procedure was also dramatically altered to make it more responsive to student opinion. These changes included new regulations providing students with the right of initiative and allowing the Student Council to suspend its rules at any time in order to open the floor for debate.46 These reforms were not limited to University High. In what amounted to a ripple effect, secondary school students throughout Los Angeles fought for the same privileges won by their contemporaries on other campuses. This effort ultimately coalesced into a city-wide movement to secure a Student Bill of Rights, which included the right to freely discuss any issue and the right to petition the school administration for change.47
The editorial policy of the Warrior swiftly adjusted to suit the rapidly changing times. After Foley had banned the reply to the pro-war editorial, David Bell had ordered a retraction of his own work and offered "our sincere apologies to those offended by it."48 When subsequent events seemed to favor student dissidents, Bell argued that, while the newspaper had been the cause of much of the recent campus unrest, that unrest had led to a new sensitivity to student concerns on campus. He thus felt justified in claiming that the paper had thereby contributed substantially to the growth of student rights.49 Such tortured logic was soon unneeded to justify the paper's place in the student movement. The Warrior quickly exploited the new editorial policy approved by Foley's successor: any issue could be discussed in the paper so long as it was presented in a pro and con format. Under this policy, the paper regularly published explorations of controversial issues, such as school prayer and conscientious objectors. Inevitably, this stance upset the radical right as much as the previous policy had upset campus Vietnam dissidents. Steven Symons, who described himself as the area director for the Coordinating Committee of Republican Youth, was angered at the apparent left-wing radicalism that had led to editorials on Vietnam and "other issues which are supposed to be [read: should be] suppressed by the administration."50 Ultimately, however, forces on the extreme Left proved to be the political elements most dissatisfied with the course of post-Foley student activism.
Two years after the events of February and March 1966, several veterans of the Vietnam editorial controversy were interviewed by the producers of a documentary film addressing the question of adolescent rights and freedom of the press. The comments of these former students clearly indicate that because Foley's authoritarian gestures addressed the issue of dissent in wartime, his actions served to undermine not only these students' belief in the freedom of the press, but also their faith in a host of traditional values and institutions.51 Their activist successors at University High shared these views to the extent that they rejected the student newspaper as a venue for social debate, and struck directly at the core cultural and political values Foley had tried to uphold. Their initial weapons were two student "alternative" newspapers: the Free Student and the Worrier, the latter founded in 1968 by two students active in the University High School chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which had been established on campus that same year.
According to the editor of the Worrier, Neil Beger, lasting progressive change on issues like Vietnam could never be accomplished via the Warrior, student government or even his own paper, but he felt that "if we continue to publish articles opposing the war in Vietnam, linking it to the racism in America and U.S. imperialism throughout the world, we will have accomplished our purpose."52
Beger's opposite number at the Warrior, Skip Alexander, argued that the changes SDS sought in American society could be brought about by working through the establishment. He asserted that many campus reforms for which SDS claimed credit were initiated by the establishment in the form of the University High leadership class.53 Alexander, however, argued in vain. Beger and his associates were no longer concerned with on-campus activism, but rather the linking of campus activists to the national political arena. In time, they found a more suitable means for this task than the Worrier. That weapon was The Red Tide, the student alternative newspaper that rocked the Los Angeles educational community for a decade. This publication, whose name was intended to evoke both the scum-like beach-closing fauna of the Pacific Coast and revolutionary rhetoric, melded elements of muckraking journalism with guerilla theater to pierce through what its editors considered the veil of paternalism of the city school system to expose the venality and pretensions of its administrators. The very name of the paper still unnerves school administrators and is uttered with reverence by students now fettered by the constraints of adult life.
As might be expected of a school with Foley's legacy, The Red Tide, necessarily published in obscura, was avidly read on the University High campus. When the school's authorities eventually acted to stifle its distribution in 1974, they found themselves dragged into court by one of their students, Susannah Bright, who sought redress through a precedent established by high school students in Des Moines, Iowa, whose wearing of black arm bands in protest of the Vietnam War had led to the landmark case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School System (1969).
In Tinker, the U.S. Supreme Court established that secondary students "did not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse door." The Justices declared that "personal intercommunication among the students... is not only an inevitable part of attending school; it is also an important part of the educational process."54 The court further noted that this student communication, especially the expression of an unpopular view, may cause trouble and lead to disturbance, but, "our history says that it is this sort of hazardous freedom--this kind of openness--that is the basis of our national strength and of the independence and vigor of Americans who grow up and live in this relatively permissive, and often disputatious society."55
In the case of University High School 10th grader Susannah Bright v. the Los Angeles Unified School District (1976), the California Supreme Court determined that both on campus and off-campus publications were protected under Tinker, even though "newspapers of this genre typically contain material which criticizes school administration, challenges the principles and policies of public education and covers controversial topics outside the curriculum-all frequently couched in strident and blunt, even earthy language."56
The rights identified in Tinker and Bright were reaffirmed by the 8th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeal's finding in Kuhlmeier v. Hazelwood School District (1986), wherein that court determined that particularly where school newspapers were the product of a journalism class, such papers were more than merely a part of the adopted school curriculum where students learned to prepare papers and hone writing skills, but "a public forum established to give students an opportunity to express their views while gaining an appreciation of their rights and responsibilities under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and their state constitution."57
The Circuit Court's opinion, however, marked the high water mark for several decades of federal court support for the expansion of individual liberties, as well as the exercise by high school students of the responsibilities identified by that court. In 1988, Kuhlmeier reached the U. S. Supreme Court, a more conservative body than that which heard the Tinker case, whose own activist agenda favored the rights of the groups over individuals. Upon review, this court overturned the verdict of the Circuit Court and modified the Tinker precedents by adopting a new deferential standard: that student newspapers were not a public forum, but a part of a school's curriculum and that the content of these newspapers was subject to school officials' "broad range of discretion in determining the educational suitability of the curricular materials in question."58 The impact of the final disposition of Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier was quickly felt and is fraught with meaning for the legacy of the Vietnam experience.
In Virgil v. School Board of Columbia County, Florida (1988), an action was brought challenging a school board's decision to remove classic literary materials from high school libraries and course reading lists that did not suit the local public school board's Christian fundamentalist agenda. The facts of the case were not in dispute. School officials at Columbia High School sought to remove classical texts and several textbooks from the school library and from course lists for the purpose of restricting access to alternative political ideas and social perspectives, in direct violation of both Tinker and the equally important Board of Education v. Pico (1982).59 The U. S. District Court in Miami failed to see what harm "could conceivably be caused to a group of eleventh-and twelfth-grade students by exposure to [works by] Aristophanes and Chaucer" whose sexual content had ostensibly led to their removal from the school's shelves. The court even went so far as to agree with the plaintiffs that "the School Board's decision reflect[ed] its own restrictive views of the appropriate values to which Columbia High School students should be exposed." However, they found themselves bound by the broader standards laid down in Kuhlmeier, which established that such "content-based decision-making regarding curriculum is permissible regardless of the intent so long as the Board's action was not unreasonable," and that, "while the Board could have taken less drastic action than excision of the books in question, its act of censorship was not inconsistent with that standard given its right to limit exposure to material that may be inappropriate for their level of maturity."60 The District Court concluded its finding by repeating the basis of the new doctrine stated in Kuhlmeier, that "the education of the nation's youth is primarily the responsibility of parents, teachers, state and local school officials and not federal judges."
This noble sentiment has heartened those who wish to assert control over our nation's school system to promote their own agendas. Across the country, many Christian evangelists, acting under the banner of television minister Pat Robertson's "Christian Coalition," are attempting to seize control of local school districts by contesting poorly attended local school board elections with a view to imposing their views on American youth to the exclusion of all others. They have particularly targeted the values of political pluralism, multiculturalism, social tolerance, and student rights, the chief features of the post-Vietnam era "Rainbow Curriculum" whose antecedents had similarly threatened the devout Hugh Foley.61 California is currently the chief target of this campaign and it is possible that under their pressure today's more conservative California Supreme Court might seek to challenge the Bright ruling which lives despite Kuhlmeier (California incorporated the Bright and Tinker findings into state law under the more liberal provisions of its own state constitution; after Kuhlmeier, Massachusetts and several other states also acted to protect the rights upheld in Tinker).
There are those who would be pleased to see the course of student dissent and civil liberties come full circle though the restoration of the authoritarian control of school officials over their pupils. Some of these groups and individuals would no doubt relish this result as just punishment meted out to the Radical Left whose views presumably superseded the views of the Radical Right in political forums during the late 1960s. Of course, this is a contest that predates the Vietnam War. Conflict between secularist liberals and evangelical conservatives over civil liberties on the battlefield of public education is at least as old as the Scopes Monkey Trial. The war in Vietnam merely exacerbated this struggle. However, an examination of policies and opinions now current at University High suggests that the continuation of the Vietnam-era battle over the exercise of freedom of the press by secondary school students is not only unnecessary and unwanted, but may threaten the very way of life Robertson and his conservative allies ostensibly seek to preserve.
University High School has shared in the recent general decline of the Los Angeles public school system, though its recent success in the annual California Academic Decathlon competition was judged to have "reaffirmed the fact that you can still find an excellent education at Uni High."62 Its journalism staff is composed of an ethnic cross-section of the pupils of this traditionally multicultural school, which now embraces members of the Vietnamese as well as Northeast Asian, African-American and Hispanic communities. When this writer asked what this editorial staff would do if their paper and their school faced what they regarded as censorship, several current members of the Warrior editorial team--including the daughter of two "hippies" at Berkeley in the sixties--questioned whether they would ever have to address this problem. Their principal, the same Jack Moskowitz who figured in the campus clashes of 1966, has implemented a plan--a community school-based program now common in Los Angeles--that respects the freedoms protected under the Tinker and Bright decisions, while also respecting community standards. But these student-journalists had no doubt what they would do if their school violated this social contract. "We would protest and then we would take the issue to the streets." When this writer asked them why they would do so, they argued that the unfettered exercise of their freedoms of speech and of the press was central to their ability to appreciate these freedoms as students and exercise them appropriately as adults. This writer then sought to test their mettle by inviting them to declare their positions on the late Gulf War and U.S. intervention in Somalia, and evaluate the role played by the news media in each of these events. They responded with a debate among themselves that was critical, articulate, and informed. They voiced diverse opinions scattered across the entire range of traditional ideological perspectives and demonstrated both a respect for opposing views and an awareness of the dangers of extremism of both the Left and the Right.63 The behavior and ideals evinced by these young people indicates that the history of student activism in American high schools during the Vietnam era has culminated in the advancement of quintessential American values well worth some ideological flexibility and personal sacrifice. To deny or negate the hard-won freedom that sustains this positive achievement is certainly a poor way of honoring the memory of over 58,000 other young Americans who, in Vietnam, gave their very lives in its defense.
1 See, for example, Anthony S. Campangna, The Economic Consequences of the Vietnam War (New York: Praeger, 1991) and John Carlos Rowe and Rick Berg, eds., The Vietnam War and American Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.
2 The Teapot Dome scandal of 1921-1923 directly involved both the Elk Hills Oil Reserve in California and one of Southern California's leading oil barons, Edward L. Doheny. The President's name was assigned to the West Los Angles high school before this and other scandals had permanently sullied the reputation of Harding's administration.
3 The University High School student newspaper, the Warrior, December 3, 1965, p. 3. The name change was justified on the grounds that school officials in Berkeley, California had adopted a similar name for the secondary school adjacent to The University of California campus.
4 Many film studio executives, including John Landis (Animal House, Beverly Hills Cop) and Leonard Hill (Leonard Hill Productions), were University High School products, as were Elizabeth Taylor and Sandra Dee. Marilyn Monroe attended the school in the tenth grade, but graduated from nearby Hollywood High School, while Judy Garland hoped to graduate from Hollywood High, but received her diploma from University High. Of course, Hollywood High produced more actors than any other single secondary school. Some of University High's early contributions to the entertainment industry are catalogued in Bruce Stuart, "Warriors of the Old Reservation Are Now Famous People of the World," Warrior, October 2, 1964, p. 3.
6 Mike Hirschfield, author of a black-bordered article on the Kennedy assassination, argued that the "responsibility [for Kennedy's death] is ours." Warrior, December 13, 1963, p. 1. A black-bordered editorial marked the anniversary of the Kennedy assassination for the reminder of the decade.
17 This student, Eugene Pera, had returned from a school absence with a Beatles haircut. Foley had, by sheer coincidence, been in the office of school registrar when Pera reported to her. The principal intervened in the readmission process. He told Pera to go home, and declared that Pera would not be allowed back in school until he got his hair cut. Pera returned the next day and went directly to class, his hair unshorn. Foley, who anticipated this action, hunted the student down in class and attempted to have him removed. When Pera quietly declined to submit to Foley's wishes, Foley summoned the Los Angeles police on to the campus. Pera was arrested, tried in municipal court, found guilty and fined for trespassing.
21 "Childish Behavior Witnessed at Taking of Senior Picture," Warrior, March 20, 1964, p. 2. See also "Should the Voting Age Be Lowered to 18," Warrior, November 5, 1965, p. 2, which included the following remark: "`If I am old enough to be drafted, why can't I vote?' This cry has been heard often in the past year, especially since the acceleration of the war in Viet Nam."
30 At the time of his death, Gitelson carried a safe conduct pass from the local Viet Cong cadre. He was also apparently about to file a devastating report on the abuse suffered by his villagers at the hands of a government resettlement program. These developments and other evidence have convinced IVS veterans that Gitelson was murdered by agents, American or Vietnamese, acting in the interests of South Vietnamese political economic and/or political interests that would have been damaged by his report. See John Balaban, Remembering Heaven's Face (New York: Touchstone, 1992), p. 331.
34 Of the editorial staff with an interest in a career as a professional journalist, Crane was the only one to go directly to a major university upon his graduation from high school. The others attended local junior and senior colleges.
42 Interview by telephone with Dr. Warren Steinberg, July 22, 1993. When Steinberg informed the Board of Education that he would seek another position rather than remain at University High under Foley's command, he was told that this was his best course of action, as the Board could not afford to remove Foley due to the reasons cited here. Steinberg became vice principal, and then principal of Crenshaw High School. He retired as principal of Fairfax High School and became an active member of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley's race relations commission.
44 Foley was assigned to a Board of Education task force charged with rationalizing student athletic policies. He never again served as a high school principal. He finished his career as the chief administrator of a junior high school.
61 The members of this movement are, of course, free to pursue any agenda they choose, though, as The New York Times has observed, "Right-wing Christians... have as much right to run for community school boards as anyone, but should voter apathy grant them disproportionate influence the result could be destructive. The best candidates for community school boards are those with broad knowledge and concern for schools, not those who run to achieve narrow political goals. See "School Challenge from the Right," The New York Times (6 Apr 1993): sec. a., page 16.