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First Amendment

Rocky Point High School students walk out March 14 to join in the national protest against gun violence in schools. Photo from Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

“Books not bullets!” “We want change!”

A group of nearly 30 students shouted these words from behind the front gates of Rocky Point High School between 10 a.m. and 10:17 a.m. March 14, demanding stricter gun legislation to help put an end to school violence one month after the Parkland, Florida, shooting left 17 students and faculty members dead.

Rocky Point High School students walk out March 14 to join in the national protest against gun violence in schools. Photo from Kevin Redding

The Rocky Point high schoolers were among thousands across the country who took part in the school walkout demonstration during the time frame.

The district issued a letter to parents last week that any student who chooses to participate in the movement via exiting the high school will be “subject to administrative action.” Requests for what the repercussions might be were not immediately returned.

Students waved signs that read “Our voices deserve to be heard,” “I will not be a statistic” and “School is for learning, not target practice” as passing cars honked in support.

“We want legislators to take action against all assault weapons,” said senior Jade Pinkenburg, one of the organizers of the event. “We don’t want guns in our schools and want to feel safe within our schools. That’s what we’re doing this for.”

Rocky Point High School students walk out March 14 to join in the national protest against gun violence in schools. Photo from Kevin Redding

Senior Bernard Sanchez said students should be allowed to have more of a voice.

“You can’t sacrifice the First Amendment to try to protect the Second,” Sanchez said. “Court cases have proven time and time again that we don’t give away every choice we have when we enter a school.”

Jade Pinkenburg’s father Chris said that the students involved in the protest attempted to meet with Superintendent Michael Ring at the start of the week but “nothing happened.”

“No Rocky Point student will be permitted to leave the premises as part of any of these upcoming events or otherwise, without appropriate permission, whether on March 14 or at any time during school hours throughout the school year,” Ring wrote in last week’s letter.

Chris Pinkenburg stood by and said he supports the students despite the district’s disapproval.

“I think it’s a very good thing,” his father said. “Obviously the adults don’t have any solutions, so I hope this will bring about great change. It’s time.”

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In an attempt to promote transparency, the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics recently proposed requiring public relations consultants to register as lobbyists if they are trying to influence editorial writers.

That would mean any public relations professionals who contacts a reporter or editorial board in an attempt to get the media to advance their client’s message would be considered to be delivering a lobbying message.

Several New York public relations firms and New York Press Association members immediately spoke out against this proposal, and we side with them and share their concerns.

To force anyone to report to the government before they speak to a reporter seems dangerous, and almost medieval. It treads on freedom of speech if the government is effectively regulating newspaper content, and interfering with a newsroom staff’s ability to independently and objectively judge its sources on its own. On top of that, it is an example of government butting its nose into what are largely privately owned companies — a place it has no business giving orders.

On the surface, it seems as though JCOPE is paying the press a compliment, saying the news media are so valuable that it wants to help preserve the public watchdog’s objectivity. But, in an ironic twist, within the same stroke it would be compromising the independence of the Fourth Estate by controlling its sources.

Freedom of the press is one of the rights America was built upon and relies upon to this day, and this move would tramp on the media’s liberty to print the issues and concerns of the public without needing permission from the government. One of the main jobs of a reporter is to evaluate whether a source is credible and whether a story is newsworthy. Let’s keep this task out of the hands of the government and in the hands of the people who make these decisions every day.

As a newspaper that takes pride in serving the community before anyone else, we stand against this proposal to restrict our communication and we hope you will too.

Claims district violated his First Amendment rights

Miller Place High School senior Kyle Vetrano, second from left, was punished for ad-libbing a line during the school’s variety show last month. Photo by Barbara Donlon

A Miller Place High School student is suing the district for allegedly violating his First Amendment rights after he was punished for making an ad-libbed remark about the superintendent’s salary during a variety show.

At the Thursday, March 26 variety show, Kyle Vetrano, senior class president, appeared in a skit poking fun at the high school’s new bathroom policy, which allows one student at a time to use the bathroom in an effort to combat drug use and sales. According to the senior, he improvised the line that later got him into trouble.

“Is this what our superintendent gets paid all that money for? To write bathroom policy,” Vetrano said in the skit.

Following the remark, Vetrano said school administrators told him that he was not allowed to participate in the Friday night performance and was banned from school grounds during the show, as the line was not included in the pre-approved script.

“Kyle exercised his political speech rights, which are not to be violated by any government agency what so ever, including his own school,” Vetrano’s attorney John Ray, of Miller Place, said at a press conference held outside the high school on Thursday.

Miller Place High School senior Kyle Vetrano’s supporters rally on his behalf. Photo by Barbara Donlon
Miller Place High School senior Kyle Vetrano’s supporters rally on his behalf. Photo by Barbara Donlon

Vetrano’s mom, Christine, said the district is bullying her son, which is why they decided to take a stand and file the lawsuit.

The high school senior said he told a harmless joke with no malicious intent and was singled out by the district because it was the superintendent he made the remark about. He claims other students also veered off script, but were not reprimanded or punished.

Vetrano said he apologized to Superintendent Marianne Higuera numerous times, but was allegedly told that if he continued to bring up the situation, his senior prom, awards night and graduation privileges could be revoked.

“I think as an American in this country we have a right to freedom of speech and I’m just embarrassed that the district I have been a part of my entire life completely violated my first amendment rights,” Vetrano said.

When reached for comment, the district’s public relations firm, Zimmerman/Edelson, Inc. referred to a letter from Higuera posted on the district’s website.

According to the March 31 letter, students were made aware of the consequences for breaking the rules, which have been consistent year-after-year. Higuera said she was not present at the performance, but was advised of the ad-libbed line.

“This current ad-libbing situation is simply an issue of rules and consequences and not about me as the superintendent,” Higuera stated in the letter.

According to Higuera’s letter, the district will continue to discuss the “one-person at a time” bathroom policy.

About 50 people rallied at the press conference. They marched and held signs in support of the senior.

“What do we want? Free speech!” the crowd shouted as they marched up to the district office.

The family is suing for monetary damages, but has yet to decide on an amount, according to Ray.

“I was the only one who ad-libbed about the superintendent, but my comments were not with any mal-intent,” Vetrano said. “They didn’t call her out by name and they were part of a skit that was completely satirical and comedic in nature.”