Controversy erupts after school removes newspaper adviser

Thursday, November 18, 1999

An 80-year-old tradition has been broken. It has been more than two months since school began, and not a single issue of the Flashings, the oldest high school newspaper in Nassau County, N.Y., has been published.

In September, the Freeport High School administration removed Ira J. Schildkraut as Flashings' adviser, a position he had held for 30 years.

“Our adviser was dismissed on the first day of our meeting, and we were unable to start with new story ideas,” Michael Leonard, news editor for Flashings, said. School policy forbids students from publishing the newspaper without an adviser.

Freeport High School spokesman Michael Conte said that Schildkraut had misrepresented the issue of his being released as adviser. “It is bogus. He is trumpeting this as a First Amendment issue,” Conte said.

But critics of the changes at Freeport High School note that school officials also revised Flashings' statement of intent, which has guided the paper for the past 30 years. The original mission statement gave students the power to determine how the paper should be run, including choosing their adviser. The final decision to print any article rested with the student editorial board. The paper's adviser was just that — an adviser with no authority in the selection of materials and no vote on the editorial board. Flashings' original statement of intent mirrored the Student Press Law Center's model guidelines for student publications.

Defending the school's decision to change the statement of intent, Conte said that: “The statement of intent is just an articulation of how the adviser and the students felt the paper should run. The publication policy, which applies to all school publications, does not include the statement of intent. The statement of intent was never agreed upon by the school board.”

According to Leonard, in the administration's new statement of intent there would be a review committee of six people — three students, the principal, the assistant superintendent and the faculty adviser. If one person disagreed with an article, the superintendent would make the final decision.

“Flashings' statement of intent might have been appropriate 30 years ago, but not in today's society. Schools must have more authority in a student newspaper,” Conte said.

This is not the first time Flashings has stirred controversy. Last year the newspaper published an article about a teacher's arrest following allegations of improper relationships with students. Leonard, the student editor, said that the school felt the article could be used against it in court and was biased. Flashings also covered an incident involving a gun at school. Leonard believes that these stories explain the school administration's attempt to control Flashings.

“We had Barbara Bernstein of the ACLU review the stories, but she didn't see the articles as biased,” Leonard said.

“We have seen the new guidelines the administration has drawn up, and the difference from the first set of guidelines is like night and day,” said Bernstein, executive director of the Nassau County chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “This is a severe example of the dismissal of the right of students to run their own newspaper.”

Bernstein said she would soon write a letter to Lottie Taylor-Northover, principal of Freeport High School.

“We want to know why the administration has come to this conclusion,” Bernstein said. “It would be one thing if the school was setting up a new newspaper. Even so, the guidelines are restrictive and offensive, because Flashings has been running for many years and has received many awards.”

Leonard said that when he and the rest of Flashings' editorial board asked to speak at the board meeting scheduled for Oct. 20, they were told not to. “We wouldn't accept that, and then the school board canceled the meeting,” Leonard said.

Conte said that the Oct. 20 meeting was canceled because only two of the five board members could attend.

The school board met last night and appointed Ann Walsh, a veteran English teacher at the school, as the new faculty adviser for the paper.

With a new adviser in place, school officials hope to talk to the students again about revising the paper's statement of intent, Conte said.

“We want to do everything we can to assure that kids have their free press and First Amendment rights upheld,” he said. “But the board of education is a de facto publisher here. The kids don't function in a vacuum.”

In the landmark 1988 student-press case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the Supreme Court ruled that high school officials could exert considerable control over school-sponsored publications if they showed strong educational reasons for doing so.

But school officials say they didn't cite Hazelwood in the Flashings matter because this situation focused on a teacher's performance and not on the newspaper's content.

“From our perspective, this whole issue has been centered on a personnel move,” Conte said. “Basically the former instructor set this up as a lightning rod. … But no element of censorship has been practiced in the district. And no board oversight has been practiced, nor is it desired to be practiced.”

First Amendment Center staff writer Phillip Taylor contributed to this report.