Principal has no regrets about censoring yearbook entry

Monday, June 5, 2000

Although two former Connecticut high school students were recently awarded a $20,000 settlement in a free-speech case, the teens' former principal said he would handle the incident the same way if it happened again.

Thomaston High School students Daniel Reilly and Robert Scanlon were suspended from school in January 1996 when, according to Reilly's attorney, the teens requested that an album title, “EFIL4ZAGGIN,” be listed in the memories section of the high school yearbook. The title spells “Niggaz 4 Life” in reverse. While the teens' attorney, George Mendillo, agreed that the title might be in bad taste, he said that the students were punished for merely referring to it.

The principal, the board of education, the superintendent and others were named in the federal lawsuit, which was settled in March.

Mendillo said there was no racial slur intended by the students, who were fans of the group N.W.A. He said the school had published the same album title in a previous yearbook. He also said that the students did not argue with the principal's order not to use the title in the yearbook, so the punishment made no sense. He said the teens were punished for making an “inappropriate request.”

“The school used heavy-handed, Gestapo-type tactics,” said Mendillo.

Michael Piccirillo, principal of Thomaston High School in 1996, stands by his decision to discipline the students. He said other issues that affected his decision were not brought out by the news media, and that published accounts of the incident were incomplete or inaccurate.

“In the first place, there was never a request,” said Piccirillo, who maintains that the students did not ask his permission to publish the title. Piccirillo said a faculty adviser discovered the contested yearbook entry before it went to print and brought it to his attention. He concedes that the same album title appeared in another yearbook, but says it simply escaped notice and was not approved for publication.

“It was not permitted, it was missed,” he said.

Piccirillo said the album title was not the only factor in his decision to suspend the students, although he would not elaborate on what those reasons might have been.

“It was, in my judgment, hate speech which was derogatory toward a minority group and women,” said Piccirillo, referring to the album title and certain lyrics. “I thought it was my responsibility, and in the interest of good taste, not to allow it,” he said. “The yearbook represents the school and the community.” He says school policy has not changed as a result of the settlement.

Mendillo calls school officials “the mind police,” and says the settlement proves that they were wrong. Piccirillo says the case was oversimplified by the news media and says he is not insensitive to First Amendment rights.

“At the time of the incident, I was a member of the American Civil Liberties Union,” said Piccirillo.

The students, who are now adults, could not be reached for comment.