HSJ Headline News
Shelving of school paper raises free-speech issue
Chandra M. Hayslett
Chandra M. Hayslett
February 27, 2003
DOVER TOWNSHIP - Students at Toms River High School North say their First Amendment rights were violated when administrators decided not to distribute the latest edition of The Captain's Log, the school newspaper, because officials thought some of the information was offensive and false.
The school principal, however, took issue with the allegations of censorship, saying that students could rewrite the articles for publication in the next issue.
Jeremy Whiteman, editor in chief of the paper, wrote an editorial about underage drinking for the February-March edition that was to be distributed Feb. 17. In the editorial, Whiteman, a 17-year-old senior, identifies specific school organizations8 as groups whose members have signed pledges not to drink alcohol but do so anyway.
"We spent so much time" on this issue, said Casey Coppinger, 17, a senior and managing editor of The Captain's Log. "I was really upset. We write what we think matters."
But High School North Principal John H. Coleman said the newspapers were not distributed because certain groups may have been offended by the information in Whiteman's editorial and because some of the statements were incorrect.
Coleman, who did not indicate what information was incorrect, said the editorial may have been "prejudicial" to the students. Coleman also said it was not clear if Whiteman's work was a news article or an editorial because it wasn't labeled.
Whiteman said all editorials begin on Page 2 of The Captain's Log, and the "Breaking the Code" editorial is on Page 2.
Abortion also an issue
Coleman said he only had an issue with Whiteman's editorial; however, in copies of the articles given to an Asbury Park Press reporter, two sentences in an editorial on abortion written by Tara Glick, a contributing writer, appear highlighted by marker. The students were told by their adviser, Kathryn Coe, that the highlighted sentences were called into question by Coleman.
Glick's editorial criticizes the health curriculum, which focuses on the anti-abortion side of the abortion debate.
"Although the (guest) speaker claimed to present seniors with `facts,' they were greatly exaggerated and extremely misconstrued. By employing shock tactics, she was successfully able to evoke a response among the group and most left the presentation newly pro-life," reads one of the highlighted statements in Glick's editorial.
Given the opportunity to change her editorial, Glick, an 18-year-old senior, said she would not.
"It's my opinion," she said. "It's unfair for us to have to silence our opinions, when every day they (the administration) force their opinions on us."
Also highlighted was the last sentence in an article by Erica Moran, in which she addresses the school's policy on when students can and cannot enter the building.
Moran wrote that Coleman could not be reached for comment and "after three failed attempts to talk to him, we gave up on a comment from administration." But Coleman said he doesn't have a problem with that statement because he is seldom in his office.
Students interviewed yesterday said the situation was handled inappropriately. Rather than Coleman telling the students the newspaper wouldn't be distributed, the staff had to hear the news from Coe, the adviser.
Coleman said that Coe decided not to distribute the newspapers, and that Coe offered students a chance to rewrite the editorials for the April/May issue.
But Coe said it was not her decision to withhold distribution.
"I was not under the impression that it was my decision," she said. "If I didn't want it distributed, I would not have printed 2,200 copies. I was told the paper was not going to be distributed. It was my idea to let the students rewrite the work."
Coleman could not be reached a second time to comment on Coe's remarks. Whiteman said he plans to rewrite his editorial.
Although The Captain's Log staff said they were censored, Coleman, who is keeping the newspapers in boxes in his office, said that is too strong a word.
" `Censored' is definitely not the right word," he said. "I just want the correct information in the newspaper. If you're going to write about it, make sure it's correct."
Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit organization in Arlington, Va., dedicated to providing legal help and information to the student media and journalism educators, said students are not exempt from the First Amendment.
"Students have a very clear and strong protection when it comes to First Amendment rights," Goodman said. "And New Jersey court provides a much broader protection than the First Amendment. So, they have double the rights." He said that if officials refuse to circulate the paper "because they don't agree with what's in it, that's censorship."
He added, "Students do have the option to go to court if administrators won't reconsider, but it's the last resort." However, with the exception of Glick, the Toms River North students interviewed said they were content to have the chance to rewrite their articles for publication at a later date.
Coe said she told the students that the Board of Education has the right not to distribute the papers.
"It's part of the curriculum, and the Board of Education pays for it, so they have the right to tell us what we can't print," she said.
Schools Superintendent Michael J. Ritacco referred questions to Coleman.
Precedent in N.J.
Ed Barocas, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said while boards of education control what happens at schools, that doesn't mean the students don't have rights.
Barocas cited a 1994 case - Desilets vs. Clearview Regional Board of Education - in which a high school principal decided not to distribute the school paper because of a review of an R-rated movie; he found that content inappropriate for a high school newspaper .
The case went to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the paper because "there was no clear educational interest for not permitting the R-rated movie review," he said.
"While school administrators have control, it's not unfettered control," Barocas said from his Newark office.
Goodman said the Student Press Law Center handled 471 requests for help from high school publication staffs across the country in 2001, the most current data available. But he said that number doesn't accurately represent how often this issue arises.
"People aren't aware of our organization, so they don't know who to call," he said. "And students are sometimes intimidated and are not comfortable in fighting. So this is the tip of the iceberg."
The number of complaints has increased by more than 100 in a 10-year period, from 367 in 1991, he said.
Copyright 2003, Chandra M. Hayslett. Reprinted with permission