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At age 17, Steve Pinza can already boast that he’s “never been the type of person to ever be afraid to say anything.” Indeed, Pinza, a senior at Mission High School in Fremont, Calif., doesn’t hold back on the Web site he built. On Capone’s Page, among mini-essays on wolves and piranhas and reviews of MP3 programs, you’ll also find photos of students, beers scandalously in hand; a classmate’s unrelenting screed against a teacher; and Pinza’s promise to deliver an “ass-whooping” to a certain clique. Situated somewhere between an open diary and the high school newspaper, sites like Pinza’s litter the Web. With names such as “Is that GOSSIP I hear” and “Brebeuf Junior High School Juicey [sic] Gossip,” these student-built sites are becoming as common a part of the teenage experience as writing sullen poetry. From the expected kiss-and-tell to more serious topics like allegations of rape, the content on these sites offers a revealing glimpse of the high school experience. “As more kids are taught Internet skills, it makes sense that they’re going to want to do their own Web sites,” says Doug Honig, public education director for Washington State’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “And when they do, it makes sense they’ll want to talk about things important in their lives: school and friends.” Since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1988, high schools have legally been allowed to censor what’s printed in the school paper. And now the laws have expanded to include any on-campus media. So as a way around these rules, students are flocking to the Net. “I think this is going to increase exponentially in the months to come,” says Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit organization that provides legal help and information to student journalists and journalism educators. “School officials have been so authoritarian with their school-sponsored media, censoring them so completely that students are looking for new ways to express themselves.” And these student sites are weighing in on subjects that would never make it into the Pirate’s Scroll or the Lion’s Tale. The anonymously penned “Is that GOSSIP I hear,” for instance, discusses the exploits of a teen Casanova and who supposedly punched whom on Homecoming night. And Pinza’s site tells the tale of a friend who allegedly had consensual sex with a girl who then accused him of raping her after her parents caught them. Pinza says it was his attempt to tell his friend’s story when no one would listen. Elsewhere, a pal of Pinza’s gripes about a teacher who treats him unfairly. She gave him a bad grade on his titration lab report, he writes, when he titled it, “Tit Report.” “I only wanted the title to stand out!” he protests. Often, however, high school students’ free expression is simply raunchy and full of adolescent ire. Capone’s Page (which Pinza untruthfully told his parents he had taken down) is tame in parts, mean-spirited in others. Pinza acknowledges this, but says he isn’t too concerned about it. A section called “Services,” for instance, contains pictures of unpopular students advertising them as prostitutes for hire. They’re given nicknames like “Diarreah” and “Nerdball.” I-ru Ba, a sophomore at Mission High, says so far Pinza’s site hasn’t gotten any flak — from adults or fellow students. “People have gotten mad at him for it, but it’s already people that he was enemies with,” she notes. Not surprisingly, unmediated expression on other student sites has provoked much stronger reactions elsewhere. And now many student sites are under threat of being taken down as a result of pressure from angry teachers, school administrators and parents. Paul Kim discovered just how touchy schools can be about nonsanctioned, school-related Web sites. In 1994, when Kim was a high school senior in Bellevue, Wash., he created an unofficial version of his high school’s site. It contained jokes about the school’s devotion to football, which Kim, being a self-described “geeky nonathletic person,” says he thought was a case of “misplaced priorities.” In a sophomoric touch, Kim also included links from the page to things high school students might find handy, including a page about masturbation and a link to Playboy.com. Kim’s principal caught wind of the page, and she demanded he take it down and threatened to suspend him. When he refused, the principal officially revoked her signature on Kim’s National Merit Scholarship Finalist form, and, without his knowledge, faxed colleges he had applied to in an attempt to negate letters of recommendation Kim had gotten from teachers at his high school. Backed by the ACLU, Kim sued and won. “They [school administrators] want to feel like they’re in control of any material that might exist talking about the school or the behavior of the students,” says Kim, who is now studying law at Yale. Still, backlash against student sites continues. In Marble Hill, Mo., the ACLU is suing Woodland High School for suspending a student who created a Web site that criticized the school, teachers and official school site. Earlier this year another student in Washington state was suspended when he published a lampoon of his high school’s vice principal on his Web site. The student sued for damages and won. Schools tightened their grip on students’ Web activities following the Columbine, Colo., massacre, in which the America Online homepage of one of the killers, Eric Harris, reportedly contained bomb-making instructions and threatening language. Following the shootings, the ACLU reported a record number of calls from students feeling the crackdown from school administrators concerned about students’ Internet activities. One student in Illinois was expelled for participating in a Gothic-themed Web site. (The case was settled quickly.) But the perception that a weird Web site equals a threat persists today. “Columbine spoke to a larger issue, and it’s really a matter of culture,” Texas Gov. George W. Bush said in the last presidential debate. “It’s a culture that somewhere along the line began to disrespect life, where a child can walk in and have their heart turn dark as a result of being on the Internet and walk in and decide to take somebody else’s life.” And at some high schools it appears that satire is threatening enough. In October, two Lawrence, Kan., high school students were threatened with suspension after producing a print and online fictional parody of their high school newspaper, The Budget, calling it The Low Budget. They agreed to allow the administration and journalism department of Lawrence High School to read their work before it is published in print and online. “I’d rather that we didn’t have to let them do this,” admits Lee Dunfield, co-creator of The Low Budget. “But I think there’s a certain amount of review that needs to be done, so they can … .” He trails off and begins again, “I think they need to censor what gets distributed on campus to a certain extent.” This pile-up of court cases and well-publicized conflicts doesn’t faze Pinza. To his knowledge, the school administrators don’t know about the site, and he says he doesn’t think they’d care. Having created a lengthy disclaimer with the help of a friend’s mother who is a lawyer, Pinza believes he’s safe from lawsuits. He may be right, but then again he may not. The laws protecting free speech are still widely unproven regarding these student gossip rags. Apart from the usual First Amendment protections, Pinza, other Webmasters and ISPs can’t be held liable for what others may say in an online public forum such as a message board or a chat room under the Communications Decency Act. And yet while the ACLU continues to win cases in which schools have tried to shut down student sites, many sites are still being taken down without anyone ever going to court. “It’s too early tell what the trend is going to be,” says the ACLU’s Ann Beeson. “There are plenty of students being punished across the nation for speech I firmly believe should be protected.” Meanwhile, Pinza has other things to worry about. Despite his full schedule of college applications, SATs and after-school sports, Pinza is trying to scan in pictures from the Homecoming dance. And, as always, there is drama to report. After all, Pinza must stay true to his site’s core mission, revealed in his site’s FAQ. Question: “Why do you talk so much on your Web site?” Answer: “I want those people that talk so much shit in life to know how it feels.” Copyright � 2000 The Industry Standard

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