New York principal shuts down school newspaper

Monday, April 20, 1998

A New York City principal indefinitely closed her school's newspaper, saying it would open again only after student editors draft administration-approved guidelines.

Principal Jinx Cozzi Perullo of Stuyvesant High School gave no specific reason for halting publication but said it wouldn't resume until “an appropriate charter” had been “ratified by the Student Union” and “accepted by the administration.”

Current student editor Janet Lee, 18, and incoming editor Micah Lasher, 16, told The New York Times that their paper, The Spectator, has run for decades without a charter. They said they feared the guidelines would hold the paper hostage to the administration.

The two students said they believe the directive may be in reaction to several articles in the paper's April 1 issue, one which criticized the local teachers union's policy of filling mid-year vacancies by seniority and another that said a French teacher gave his students advance copies of their final exam.

The students also published The Defecator, an April Fool's issue wrapped around the regular edition of the newspaper.

School officials denied the students' claims, saying the school has considered the charter idea since last semester. They also said they hope the charter will stave off infighting that has developed among the student editors and their faculty adviser.

Attempts to reach Cozzi Perullo were unsuccessful. But she told The Times that she felt compelled to close the paper because the students on the 24-member editorial board seemed to have great difficulty in getting along.

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said he knows little about the case but said it's fair to question the principal's motivation if the move violated the students' First Amendment rights.

“[School officials] didn't say, 'Let's work on a policy.' They said, 'Let's shut down the newspaper and work on a policy,'” Goodman said. “Anytime government officials close down a newspaper, I think it raises a pretty logical suspicion that they are trying to silence certain information,” he said. “It does seem punitive. It doesn't sound like the goal here is necessarily to produce better journalism.”

Ten years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court determined in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that high school officials can censor expression in student publications as long as they have a legitimate educational reason to do so.

Goodman said there isn't anything wrong with charters, “but out of necessity, they have to be nothing more than guidelines. No good newspaper would create hard and fast rules.”

Stuyvesant High School, a prestigious public school, is no stranger to censorship, Goodman said. He noted that the school faced a lawsuit after administrators in the late '70s stopped a student survey about sexual attitudes and experiences.

Ultimately, the school won Trachtman v. Anker at the federal court of appeals level in 1979.

“It was a bad decision at the time; it was pretty outlandish,” Goodman said. “The school argued that it would traumatize the students if others were asking them about sex.”

Goodman said that even though the current administrators probably weren't in place at the school 20 years ago, the past decision and the current situation “suggest, perhaps, a long-term attitude or pattern of censorship.”