Students got the chance to “listen to the hero they never knew they had” in Coover at the lecture and award giving event of the Champion of the First Amendment, which is the top award that is given at First Amendment Day at Iowa State.
The event started off a little late to accommodate the freedom marchers to get back to campus and have a chance to listen to Ben Lange’s story of how he became the “high school hero” and fought the system to keep the rights of students.
Greenlee School of Journalism professor Michael Dahlstrom introduced Lange, an Iowa teacher at Waukon High School, who was reprimanded for allowing students to publish articles that the principal of the school thought were offensive.
Lange started out by quoting a few of our country’s greats, such as Herbert Hoover, Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson, about freedom of the press. Dahlstrom asked how many of these talks he had given.
“After today, it will be one,” Lange said, which got a few laughs from the audience. “So please be patient with me.”
Lange gave the audience a timeline “of how things unfolded” over the course of the four years that started in April 2008 and did not end until late 2011.
It started in April 2008 when the high school paper staff wanted to do a satirical edition for April Fools Day. Some local people, not students, objected to that edition. The superintendent, principal, the assistant principal and the general manager of the school newspaper call received phone calls and complaints about it.
As a result, the editor of the paper, Mikah Wright, now a junior at Iowa state in pre-journalism and mass communication, chose to resign her position for the last two issues. Wright was seated in the front row during the lecture listening to her former teacher.
“After April of 2008 everything went just fine,” Lange said, “until September of 2009."
The Sept. 30 issue came out and on Oct. 1, Lange was called into the principal's office. A student wrote an article about tobacco use on school property and used a picture of a baby that was smoking a cigarette. This was just one of many concerns with the issue that the principal had, which led to the two day suspension of Lange. That Friday and Monday, Lange was suspended without pay and this caused him to not be able to teach or coach during the Friday football game or that Monday’s practice.
“In November of 2009, the district decided that the suspension was wrong, after I’d already served it, after the stress that goes along with being suspended,” Lange said.
The district amended the letter saying that “We are just going to scold you,” in which Lange asked to have the letter taken out, but the district refused saying, “It was your job to not let students print that material. “
Late that November, Lange decided to sue his employer to seek his rights.
In December 2009 papers were filed in the district court and nothing happened until January 2011 when the district court ruled against Lange.
The court found that it was reasonable to believe that the publications encouraged disruptions in the school or commission or violations to school policy. Lange appealed on the grounds that the court found the publications “encouraged” disruptions.
In August 2011 this was appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, which took an usual move and gave it to the appeals court.
“At this point the Student Press Law Center became involved,” Lange said.
The appeals court found Lange to be correct. The school district appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, but they also found that the appeals court got it right, ending the lawsuit in January of this year.
After showing the audience the pictures and content that the school found inappropriate, Lange was presented to his award, in all he has done to protect the first amendment rights.
Dalhstrom asked, “So what was it that kept you going?”
“Free press is essential and my motivation — all the noble reasons and maybe being stubborn,” Lange said. “It wasn’t right, it didn’t sit well [with me.]