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Earth Day 1970: A Look Back at Student Activism and Freedom of the Press

Wednesday, April 1, 2020
Stephen R. Dujack

Stephen R. Dujack

Editor, The Environmental Forum®

It is now half a century since the first Earth Day. Not only did I help run our school’s “teach in” in 1970, it is also 50 years since my entrance into environmental journalism. A first-person history may help to affirm the importance of the environmental protections that soon followed, as well as of a robust student press to push today’s issues.

My experience was shared by many in a year of activism unmatched until the current youth environmental movement spurred by climate change. As we did, today’s young, many led by a teenager, Greta Thunberg, are questioning authority for creating what seems a bleak future. Earth Day 2020 will be a time for their voices to be heard, as ours surely were 50 years ago.

Our New Jersey school was located a few miles from the Hudson River and New York City, which we grew up knowing were both suffering from world-class water and air pollution. I was outraged by the filth and the inaction by the adults in charge, not to mention global threats like nuclear war, and that led me into supporting student rights in an era when boys were being drafted right out of high school to fight in Vietnam, discussions of the war as well as of drug use, the bomb, abortion, and premarital sex were becoming commonplace, and so were complaints about pollution, apparently produced by the same forces that brought us the unpopular war.

For me, it all started in November 1969, when an initiative I led succeeded in liberalizing the high school dress code. As a result girls could wear pants and everybody could wear shorts, but only girls were allowed to go sockless. For the boys at least, we would be the first high school class to graduate with the right to vote as well as the obligation to serve in arms in an unpopular war, yet we were required to wear socks under penalty of after-school detention. It all seemed so unfair to me.

My first response was to approach the Ridgewood Sunday Post to promote a story on the dress code change, and to my surprise the editor asked me to write it up as a news story. So on November 30, 1969, my first professional public policy article appeared under the headline, “Dress Code Settled by Ballot.” I was paid $15.

I then made the acquaintance of a reporter for the Bergen Evening Record, our county’s big daily. Jo Schaffer wanted to interview me about an exchange program our small suburban high school had with the big-city school in the county seat. Our school was all white and Hackensack High had quite a variety of ethnicities. “Steve Dujack of Emerson said he was impressed by the way the races got along in Hackensack. ‘I was amazed,’” I was quoted in the paper on December 22 — the day ELI was incorporated.

The interview with Schaffer continued to bear fruit. Six weeks later, she attended a town hall meeting in Emerson that she called “a discussion on whether the generations can communicate.” The session “became more of a debate on which generation least understands the other.” The event brought together the mayor, the school board president, a teacher, a mother, and four students.

I wasn’t satisfied with the argument that the parents had experienced a world war and the Depression and therefore deserved to make the key decisions. “Student Steve Dujack voiced his disagreement,” Schaffer reported. “He cited the population explosion, an increase in poverty, and air pollution. ‘We don’t have a very bright future to look forward to.’” Even back then there were concerns about environmental justice and intergenerational equity.

These events piqued my interest in journalism. I thus joined the staff of the school newspaper. But it soon became clear that students could not write about issues critical to us. Our activism had gone beyond the stage of arguing about socks. So I decided to launch an underground newspaper.

Thorn Student Paper

On March 16, 1970, volume 1, number 1, of Thorn was distributed to students just yards off the school campus. For cachet, we acted as if we were contraband — and soon enough we were. The ban ensured we would go viral in the manner of the day and thus highlight our unwillingness to experience war and environmental disaster.

Indeed, “Three staff members of an underground publication have learned first-hand about school protocol in a 15-minute discussion with the Board of Education,” Schaffer soon reported in the Record. We had attended the meeting to ask permission for our next issue, devoted to Earth Day, to be distributed on campus and were told to bring it up through channels. We expected that and then argued that we had a First Amendment right to distribute our publication. We cited the Supreme Court’s decision in Tinker v. Des Moines, the 1969 case involving black arm bands and war protest that established student free speech, but the board wasn’t persuaded of our merits.

We couldn’t have been happier with the ban — we knew we would get exposure in the papers and thus advance our causes. Articles in Thorn “include the pros and cons of legalizing marijuana and of the Vietnam war,” Schaffer soon wrote about our first publication. Indeed, weed legalization and our country’s endless wars are still topics of youthful concern today. We were clearly debating cutting-edge issues.

That board meeting also produced an article in the Sunday Post titled “Underground School Paper Editors Must Follow Rules.” We did end up following the rules, and as expected were turned down by the principal and the superintendent, who told us to seek publication in the school’s paper. We had no intention of following this advice, knowing our articles would never pass muster. And thus we started our special Earth Day issue.

Both the weekly and the daily continued to follow our underground newspaper’s progress. On April 1, an article appeared in the Record under the headline “Thorn Is Sticking in School’s Side.” The paper noted that “the Thorn staff is concentrating on ecology for the second issue. According to Dujack they hope to publicize regional and county events for Earth Day.”

That wasn’t the end of the publicity. Editorial meetings soon turned into “rap sessions” to pound out the contents of our “ecology” special issue. And so Schaffer attended a staff event and wrote an article published on Earth Day 1970 about our editorial process.

Thorn continued to generate media buzz. On April 30, Schaffer wrote, “Young Editors Delete Censorship,” about how we were squaring our promise of a free press with articles coming in for our third issue that contained profanity. “Steve says the editors try to base their decisions not only on the quality of writing, but on the subject and the presentation of facts.”

While Earth Day was in progress, President Nixon escalated the secret invasion of Cambodia, and when that became known schools around the country erupted in protest and held another teach-in. The next issue of Thorn featured the tragic massacre of four unarmed student demonstrators at Kent State University under the headline, “The Guns of May.” And that was the end of the school year and our paper’s run. But we had hit the cusp of that golden era of student activism and advanced journalism and our causes.

Six months later, New Jersey “State Commissioner of Education Carl Marburger ruled that school boards couldn’t restrict student publication of underground newspapers, but could only prescribe reasonable regulations,” the Record reported in an article on our deceased organ and still-viable alternative papers. Then in 1988, the Supreme Court decided in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that officials nationwide can censor school-sponsored publications for purposes “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

The decision shows why today’s youth, who will be alive when climate change begins producing global disruption, challenging the established order, will need to demand their right to a healthy environment by pushing their concerns into the public sphere as we did in 1970, including via a searching and engaging student-run free press.

This blog originally appeared in The Environmental Forum  and is reprinted with permission.