[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #7 in December 2008]
In the wake of 1968, an increasing number of Chicago-area high school students began to identify with the anti-war movement and the counterculture. At one high school after another, activists organized sit-ins, pickets and class boycotts protesting the war, supporting racial justice or expressing solidarity with students who’d been had suspended for previous political activities. Almost overnight, dozens of student-produced underground papers sprang up to give voice to the rising tide of dissent. One of these papers became the subject of a legal case that was instrumental in securing the first amendment rights of “unofficial” student publications and has been a vital precedent protecting free expression for students ever since.
In the spring of 1970, two Lane Tech High School seniors—Burt Fujishima and Richard Peluso—were suspended for distributing 350 copies of their underground paper, The Cosmic Frog, on school grounds. According to the Chicago Board of Education, they had violated a rule that required students to get advance permission from the Superintendent of Schools before distributing any printed material on school property. Together with another student who had been suspended for circulating an anti-war petition at his school, Fujishima and Peluso challenged the Board of Education rule in court. In 1972, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in The Cosmic Frog’s favor, striking down the Board of Education policy as an unconstitutional restriction on student speech.
Despite the 7th Circuit Court ruling, two more students at Lane Tech were threatened with suspension in 1973 for printing and distributing an underground paper called The Oppressed. Citing the The Cosmic Frog case, the students brought a suit against the school administration and, in response, a U.S. District Court issued a restraining order preventing their suspension. Ultimately, Lane Tech officials arrived at an out of court settlement with the students allowing them to pass out The Oppressed on campus and protecting them against any further repercussions for their work on the paper.
In 1987, Lane Tech’s then-principal, Maude Carson, attempted to ban the free, city-wide, alternative youth newspaper New Expressions from the school on the grounds that it was creating a litter problem. Attorneys for the Board of Education advised her that because of the first amendment protections enjoyed by underground student publications, she would have to allow the paper back on campus.
The Cosmic Frog was a small ad hoc publication that did not survive long enough to have any direct impact on the experiments in underground and alternative youth media being currently conducted in the Chicago-area. Yet the free speech fight that developed around the paper laid the legal groundwork for the freedoms enjoyed by today’s high school media activists. And for that reason, its worth remembering. ◊