Pennsylvania district asks student journalists to draft publication guidelines

Friday, March 10, 2000

In photo barred from February issue of Hatboro-Horsham High School newspaper, Hat Chat, freshman Cindy Gorn awaits her onstage fate in play, 'Sorry, Wrong Number.' This and picture below were supplied by Robin Farr, former faculty adviser for the paper.

School district officials in Horsham Township, Pa., have asked student journalists from the local high school newspaper to draft guidelines on how they would like to see the paper run.

The request came at a meeting this week between district officials and the Hatboro-Horsham High School Hat Chat staff one day after staffers attended a school board meeting to protest an administrator’s restrictions of the paper.

David Hottenstein, district director of secondary education, and School Board President Thomas Hagan met with the Hat Chat staff on March 7 to discuss a growing dispute between members of the staff and school administrators over control of the paper. The dispute centers on acting Principal Connie Malatesta’s Feb. 15 seizure of nearly 1,200 copies of the paper and her subsequent dismissal of the paper’s faculty adviser, Robin Farr.

Hat Chat staffers and supporters attended a school board meeting March 6 to protest Malatesta’s actions and to request Farr’s reinstatement. The board, however, backed Malatesta’s decisions.

“We believe the actions were not only legal but also proper under the circumstances,” Hagan said at the meeting, as reported in The (Horsham) Record.

Malatesta cited an “inappropriate” editorial on flatulence as reason for confiscating all copies of the paper.

“We don’t want the Beavis and Butthead mentality to take over,” Malatesta told The Record. “This is not where we want to be as a school newspaper. I just think that some things are not appropriate for high school.”

The issue was reprinted and distributed to students on Feb. 22 with a black box replacing the editorial.

In removing Farr as adviser — a position she had held for four years — Malatesta cited the teacher’s “lack of judgment” in approving the flatulence editorial and a long history of philosophical differences over how the paper should be managed.

When contacted for this story, Malatesta said she would not continue to debate the issue publicly. “I’ve spent more time discussing flatulence than I want to in the rest of my educational career,” she said.

But Farr says Malatesta only used the flatulence editorial as a smoke screen to remove her as adviser.

“I think the administration now realizes since I provided them with a copy of (the Pennsylvania) school code that they can’t pull an article simply because it’s critical of the administration,” she said. “They can’t make me make the kids write ‘nice’ articles (or) make me stop letting the kids write what they (administrators) consider to be negative articles. So the only way that they can control that is to get rid of me.”

Under Pennsylvania school code, students are free to report and to editorialize on the news as long as the material produced is not obscene or libelous and does not “cause a substantial disruption or interference with school activities.” School officials may remove material that doesn’t meet these guidelines from school papers, but they “may not censor or restrict material simply because it is critical of the school or its administration.”

Farr said the flatulence editorial was only the latest of several articles censored by administrators. The editorial was written to replace two abortion articles (one pro-abortion rights, the other anti-abortion) that Malatesta had removed from the February issue. Last month, Malatesta also vetoed an editorial cartoon on abortion and two photos from the school’s One Act Play Festival, saying the photos portrayed violence and alcoholism.

Second banned photo shows Hatboro-Horsham sophomore Jessica Brettle acting as a habitually drunk character in a one-act play.

Farr said administrators also removed an article at the beginning of the school year about the difficulties guidance counselors face in counseling students on personal subjects. The article was written in response to a lawsuit filed by the parents of a Hatboro-Horsham student who alleged that a guidance counselor helped their daughter get a secret abortion. Farr said administrators pulled the article although it did not mention the lawsuit or the specific situation the lawsuit concerned.

She also said administrators prevented an article in the fall of 1998 about a hazing incident involving members of the school’s football team. She said school officials eventually allowed a generic article on hazing, but the article did not deal with issues pertinent to the specific situation at the school.

Hottenstein said the March 7 meeting was held to follow up on concerns staffers expressed at the school board meeting that they had little input into the governance of the paper. Hottenstein says district officials want to give the students an opportunity to suggest ways the district’s current newspaper policy can be improved.

Officials want “to come up with a way that this can work for everyone,” he said.

Once the students have drafted their suggestions, Hottenstein says he and other district officials will meet with them to discuss modifying present guidelines.

He stressed, however, that administrators would continue to have final editorial control over the paper.

“We clearly believe that under the law, under the (state) school code, we have the right to pull articles that are heinous, obscene or disruptive,” he said. “We’re not going to compromise our position, but we want to give them (the students) more input.”

Rob Berretta, assistant editor of the Hat Chat, says that while he and the staff are willing to compromise with administrators, they are not willing to forfeit rights guaranteed to them by the Pennsylvania school code.

Hottenstein has said he wants “a prior review policy that is ‘fair’ for both sides,” Berretta said in an e-mail. “I don’t want a policy that is ‘fair,’ for both sides, I want one that is legal,” he said.

Although the staff would like to avoid a lawsuit, it would pursue one if necessary to resolve the situation, Berretta said.

He also says the staff wants the district to reinstate Farr as adviser. But Hottenstein says the district is standing by the school board’s decision not to reinstate her.

Several student press organizations have voiced support for the paper. In a statement posted on its Web site, the Pennsylvania School Press Association calls “for an end to the on-going pattern of censorship and the immediate reinstatement of Robin Farr as adviser.”

PSPA and the Journalism Education Association have sent letters to administrators criticizing Malatesta’s actions. Both organizations, along with the Student Press Law Center, have urged administrators and students to reach some type of compromise and have offered to help draft publication guidelines.

PSPA has threatened to file a formal complaint with the state attorney general if the district does not revise its guidelines. But George Taylor, PSPA executive director, says the organization views legal action only as a last resort.

In a letter to Hagen dated March 8, Taylor suggests that the district form a publications board to develop guidelines for and to govern student publications. The board would consist of faculty, students, parents and other taxpayers.

The Hat Chat has also received support from Thomas Eveslage, chairman of Temple University’s journalism department, and Dave Barry, a Pulitzer Prize-winning humor columnist for the Miami Herald whose column appears in more than 400 newspapers nationwide.