Promoting drug use in a high school newspaper is undeniably inappropriate, but is there ever room for critical discussion about drugs? How about reporting on substantial medical research, which claims some psychedelic drugs might offer positive effects? Lakeridge High School senior Tyler Smith’s January op-ed, “Psychedelics: Agents of spiritual growth?” which reported on the effects of psychedelic drugs and brought to question their spiritual relevance, provoked controversy amongst parents in the school district who have asked the school board to review its student press regulations.
Some parents criticized Smith’s article for advocating psychedelic drug use, but Smith claims he was actually trying to “open the mind to understand why people use [drugs].” He argued, “Psychedelic drugs are often misunderstood. Unlike other drugs that are used for the sole purpose of getting high, psychedelics can offer users a connector with a spiritual insight, toward a more heightened sense of enlightenment. Thus, I do not believe psychedelics should be linked with other common drug crimes or affiliation.” After increasing concerns from parents, he printed a second article in February to clarify his intentions: “I didn’t say that people should go take these drugs, but instead suggested a new way of thinking about the people who do.” He did not abdicate his original argument, but reiterated, “We may have misconceptions about users” and cited reputable medical research indicating positive discoveries in the drugs’ abilities to combat mental disorders, such as OCD and anxiety.
That such an article stirred controversy is to be expected, however controversy in itself should not warrant the enactment of restrictive policies, such as the administrative review of Newspacer before publication, as was suggested by Waluga PTO President Bob Barman.
Allowing prior review of a student newspaper infringes on students’ free-expression rights. The State of Oregon expressly protects student press expression, with the only exception made for speech that “incites students as to create a clear and present danger of: The commission of unlawful acts on or off-school premises; the violation of school policies; or the material and substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school.” And, according to the US Supreme Court, there is “no support for any restriction of [student] speech that can plausibly be interpreted as commenting on any political or social issue, including speech on issues such as the wisdom of the war on drugs or of legalizing marijuana for medicinal use.”
Smith’s article inspired thought and dialogue amongst family and community members – conversations they might not have engaged in if it weren’t for the freedoms granted to student press. Educators should be less fearful of controversial content and more concerned with students’ abilities to formulate well researched and articulate arguments. If students are not cultivating opinions about controversial topics in an educational system designed to foster their intellectual growth, then their ability and desire to do so could be seriously impaired after they’ve left academia.
According to Principal Michael Lehman, the board postponed making final recommendations until after thoroughly reviewing various legal opinions. As of last Monday night, the board still has not settled on specific policy changes, but is currently working towards clarifying language from Oregon’s legislation into a policy of its own.