Ithaca, N.Y. — Andrew Alexander went on to the University of Chicago to study math and chemistry after graduating from Ithaca High School nearly 10 years ago.
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He was one of eight student editors of The Tattler who decided to sue the school district to throw off what they felt were unconstitutional chains of restraint on their free speech in district guidelines governing the student publication.
The lawsuit was dismissed last week, but not before some changes that vindicated the students’ position.
What was gained, and lost, and learned?
Alexander agreed to an interview with The Voice.
His beliefs remain strong and passionate, as you can sense:
Q: The Constitutional issue was never really settled, right?
Did the case at least weaken the prior restraints that had been embedded in the earlier guidelines?
AA: The Constitutional issues were never really settled. The guidelines that the ICSD had imposed on the Tattler in 2005 were, in our view, clearly unconstitutional. Judge Mordue agreed insofar as he refused to throw out that portion of the suit, despite the ICSD’s repeated requests — in 2009, actually, he seemed to think that the guidelines might indeed be unconstitutional (http://web.rmozone.com/tattlerwiki/index.php?title=Summary_Judgment_Press_Release).
But with the passage of time and the imposition of new, differently-written but equally-ambiguous guidelines, the court decided not to answer those questions.
Q: Did you and all the co-plaintiffs remain committed to the case throughout? Or did some lose interest over time?
AA: We’ve all remained deeply committed! Obviously we have our own lives — about half of us are getting PhDs now, and the other half are working for tech companies — but the principle of free speech is one that we all believe in very deeply. This is IMPORTANT.
We’re proud of what we did. We were children, and we could have been intimidated by these censorious adults running the schools. But we weren’t. We stood up for ourselves, and we stood up for the principle of free speech.
Q: Who are the IHS Eight?
AA: The full list of plaintiffs is (annoyingly) redacted in some of the court documents, so just so that you have them: Rob Ochshorn, Trevor Sorrells, Ted Stinson, Prabhas Pokharel, Laura Fattaruso, Abe Halpert, Bryan Ellerbrock, and me. All of us were class of ’05 and worked together on the Tattler editorial board from 2003 to 2005. It’s worth emphasizing how much this really was a group effort: both our production of the Tattler, and the lawsuit. In the last decade of my life, I’ve only worked with one or two other organizations that have been as focused, dedicated, and passionate as the 2003 to 2005 Tattler staff was. I’m describing not just the editorial board but all of our several dozen writers, photographers, and illustrators.
There are no solitary geniuses who invent incredible things alone in their laboratory, or solitary artists who create great art by themselves. The world doesn’t work like that. There’s a great BBC documentary about the mathematician Andrew Wiles, who basically spent eight years sitting alone in a room trying to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem. He’s the exception.
We live in communities, and working together we can achieve so much more than we can working alone. I’m sorry if that sounds like some cliché out of a business bestseller bought at an airport bookstore. But it’s true. I keep thinking back to those lines from Yeats: “Think where man’s glory most begins and ends / And say my glory was I had such friends.” That’s the biggest lesson I’ve taken away from all this.
Maybe that all sounds pretentious, but that is actually how I feel.
Q: Was the paper’s name an homage to the old British Tatler, or did it have a different origin?
AA: My understanding is that the name is indeed a homage to the British Tatler. I vaguely recall reading something to that effect in the first issue, which was in 1892! (No idea where the second “t” came from, though.)
Q: You have passion around The Tattler’s history.
AA: The Tattler has been around since 1892, and its history of fighting for student press freedom is almost as long.
In the late 1980s, there was a similar lawsuit when the principal confiscated the photography editor’s camera after he took a picture the principal didn’t like. In November 1998, the then-editor, Jimmy Moody, caused a huge scene when he published an op-ed that was ostensibly about affirmative action (it was actually about the First Amendment) — thanks to some generous and right-principled lawyers, those problems got solved.
In 2000, editor Melissa Castillo-Garsow wrote and published an expose showing that the ICSD didn’t have occupancy permits for several of its schools — it had never fully completed summer renovations, and half the school year had passed, with hundreds of students in what were illegally-occupied schools. (You can imagine what the ICSD thought of this!) Somewhere on my computer I have an even longer list of “controversial Tattler articles” that I came up with when all of this was going on.
We weren’t the first Tattler editors to defend our First Amendment rights—and we won’t be the last.
Q: How expensive was the case? Who paid?
AA: No one paid! Or rather, Ray Schlather and his partners did—they took our case pro bono. I recall Ray years ago giving the Ithaca Times some horrifyingly large estimate of how much money our case would have cost otherwise.
Honestly, if there’s a real hero here, it’s Ray Schlather. Ray Schlather is not only a brilliant lawyer — he’s an incredible human being, and a role model for many of us. This guy has a…private law practice that he basically runs as a way of funding all of these civil rights cases that he takes on pro bono. The Tattler case has been high visibility, but he’s done so much that’s not in the public eye. He’s the real First Amendment hero here.
Q: Any bad outcomes from the case?
Our one really big disappointment is the Second Circuit’s decision.
Their decision was really bad. The Supreme Court acknowledged in 1969 (in Tinker v. Des Moines) that students have the same First Amendment rights as other Americans (memorably, that, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”) But since then the courts have been gradually chipping away at that, piece by piece… So the Second Circuit’s decision in our case has sadly fit right into that pattern. The court arbitrarily declared an entire class of expression open to censorship.
That’s a decision that never had much immediate relevance to our case — the cartoon was a side issue — but it’s a decision that will hurt student journalists across the country for years to come.
Q: And good ones?
AA: If you look at the Tattler today, its masthead declares that it’s an open forum. And that’s a real victory. Calling the Tattler an “open forum” is a legal term of art, and since I’m not a lawyer I probably shouldn’t be talking about it. But the point is: no one thinks the Tattler is the mouthpiece of the school district. It’s an independent, student-run publication.
With respect to the Tattler in particular, we think we won. We certainly won in the metaphorical court of public opinion. The Tattler will continue to be a hothouse for teenage muckrakers. It didn’t happen exactly the way we wanted it to, but free speech won.
The broad arc of history bends toward freedom and openness!