A Brief History of the ‘Free Press’

By OLIVE NUGENT

When we learn in school about the social upheaval that swept campuses in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, the terms used to describe it often evoke something natural and monolithic; we say it was a tide, a wave, or a deluge of progressive sentiment. We see photos of wide-eyed masses of students gathered from miles round, rallied in their thousands for the causes of the day. But rarely are we made to consider how each face in that crowd came to be there – what immediate concerns, connections, and circumstances had led them to protest, especially in a school as old and square as Lisgar.

But as I was digging through Lisgar’s archives of newspapers last year in search of pearls of editorial wisdom, I came across some documents that led me to see this era and our school in a new light. The Lisgar Free Press, later called the Student Free Press, was an under- ground newspaper published by Lisgar students between 1973 and ’74. Founded in response to a restrictive OBE literature policy, which these students felt infringed upon their freedom of speech, the paper was from the outset deeply critical of the Lisgar administration, the school system, and what they saw as institutional resistance to the social changes that had swept schools over the past decade. Over its eighteen- month print run, the Free Press went from being a small-run, stapled gestetner paper to a fully- fledged offset newspaper with a circulation of 6,000 in schools all over Ottawa that coveredstudent issues and activism from Cornwall to Chile.

The Free Press seemed so completely out of place among the other quality, but comparatively tame publications, and needless to say my interest was piqued. But when I went to research it further, I discovered that despite the evident scale of this production, there was no real record of it in any official sources on Lisgar’s history. This was not particularly surprising given the fraught relationship between its editors and the school, but this bothered me nonetheless. So when AP Capstone, an independent research program, gave me the opportunity, I set out out to fill this gap and track the evolution of the paper over its short, fiery run.

In analyzing the Free Press and speaking to its former members, I found out that it was started primarily as a platform and forum for its founders that they felt their school lacked; that it later committed itself to editorial neutrality in order give students true freedom of expression; and that finally, under new leadership, it fully embraced its own biases to become an overtly activist paper. I learned of the administrative barriers at Lisgar that led them look further afield for new audiences to serve, and of the shared interests in pedagogical theory and students’ rights that drove this endeavour from start to finish.

But underlying each of these shifts and motivations was a fundamental resistance to told about themselves by outsiders – either by the media, whose interest in teens extended only as far as record sales, or by the school officials they felt were stifling their individualism and creativity. In publishing this wild, radical rag, they had created a paper by, for, and about students, where teens could talk to each other on the same wavelength. They had taken control of their own story, and were they ever telling it. After so many years with their perspective buried deep in the archives, I hope this research might give it the legitimacy it was so long denied.

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