After accusing school officials of threatening to censor his senior project, Barrington High School student Harrison Connery was told last month that he could continue his underground newspaper “Gravedigger” as long as he is careful with the material he presents to senior project judges this spring.
Judianne Point, one of the senior project coordinators at the school, said the situation, which led to the involvement of the Rhode Island ACLU on behalf of Harrison, appeared to stem from a misunderstanding.
“When he did his first issue, we were a little concerned, but we never told him he could not do it,” Ms. Point said. “All we asked him was that when it came time to do a presentation he needed to be aware of his audience. He needed to keep the subject matter appropriate for the judges and audience. … It’s an in-school presentation.”
That’s not how Harrison remembers things.
The student said he sat with senior project coordinators Ms. Point and Steve Lenz and was surprised when they told him they “reserved the right to practice constraint” with his writing.
He said they were not specific with what would be censored, but he knew he did not want his work — the paper is written in the same gonzo journalism style as pieces by Hunter S. Thompson — altered. He said the school officials told him he had two options: he could continue writing the underground newspaper without changing the content, but that it would not count toward his senior project. Or he could change his project and switch mentors.
“I didn’t want to do that,” he said.
Harrison said his project was only loosely connected with the school. He was distributing copies of it outside the school at coffeeshops and other businesses. He said there was no reason why he should have to change how or what he wrote.
Instead, he talked to a friend’s mom who is an attorney. He asked her about his rights, and they eventually decided to speak with officials at the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Steven Brown, the executive director of the local chapter, reviewed the information and decided to pursue the issue. He and an attorney sent a letter to Barrington High School Principal Joe Hurley detailing numerous reasons as to why school officials should allow Harrison unfettered control of his underground newspaper.
“Under basic First Amendment principles, as well as the senior project guidelines, the school’s curricular focus belongs on the research paper and presentation that flow from Harrison’s preparatory activities, not on attempting to bowdlerize the independent off-campus fieldwork that will inform his final product,” the letter stated.
“It is unclear to Harrison whether the coordinators have actually read the first issue of his newspaper, but he acknowledges that it contains some profanity. This is hardly surprising, considering both that the fieldwork is an underground newspaper and that Harrison’s project proposal mentions that his interest in subjective journalism emanates from Hunter Thompson, a writer whose style has never been associated with politeness.”
Harrison said the school did not initially respond to the letter, but after a second letter was sent, legal counsel for the district sent out a two-page reply stating that officials never told Harrison they would censor his work.
“There was and is no effort at censorship of Harrison’s out-of-school newspaper,” wrote the attorney, Daniel Kinder. “He was never threatened with being given a failing grade. He was told that he would be supported in his project. The project coordinators told him they would work with him.”
Ms. Point concurred.
“He had our blessing. It’s a very unique project,” she said.
“I had seen part of one issue … he has an absolute right to write it, but all I was thinking was that he needed to make sure what he presented (to the audience) was appropriate.
“I think it was a miscommunication or misunderstanding.”
Harrison grew angry and embarrassed when he first read the letter from Mr. Kinder. He said it made him out to be a troublemaker or, worse, a liar.
He said the message from school officials about his senior project writing was clear to him. He said he even double-checked before continuing the matter with the ACLU, and was convinced that he needed assistance if he planned to keep his senior project as it was.
As for making sure his project is appropriate for audience members during the presentation, Harrison said he had always planned to redact questionable passages from whatever he shared.
“I was OK with that from the start,” he said.
Two years ago Harrison received a copy of Hunter S. Thompson’s “Great Shark Hunt.” He said Thompson’s writing changed — revolutionized — the way he thought. The local student said the book and the way Thompson approached his subject matter “validated a lot of the feelings” he had “for society.”
“I started questioning everything,” he said.
When it came time for Harrison to choose a senior project, there was little debate for the topic — he told the project coordinators he would focus on gonzo journalism.
“I identified with that style of writing,” he said.
Harrison decided he wanted to write his own underground newspaper utilizing a gonzo style. He began examining the differences between gonzo journalism and regular journalism and the more he learned the more he thought that a greater truth lay in gonzo journalism.
Harrison’s first issue of Gravedigger featured a storyline of a trip to a beach in Newport, the people the author encountered and the thoughts borne from that trip.
The local teenager spent $184 to print 100 copies of the first issue and delivered them to coffeeshops and other businesses around the state.
He was ready to write his second issue when the apparent conflict surfaced with school officials. He said he was going to write about the presidential election, but will now cover it after-the-fact.