Struggle for high school press freedom continues in post-Hazelwood era

Monday, June 26, 2000

NEW YORK — When Robin Farr, adviser for a school newspaper called Hat Chat, received a summons to the office of Principal Constance Malatesta of Hatboro-Horsham High School in southeastern Pennsylvania, she expected the usual spiel about editing or banning certain articles for the next monthly issue.

But she never expected Malatesta to remove her summarily as adviser because of a student's flatulence article slated to run in the paper's next issue. In removing Farr as adviser, 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.

“It blew me off my chair,” Farr said. As adviser for the paper for four years, she said she had never resisted the administration's suggestions to pull articles on abortion and snow days. She'd never had any heated discussions with the principal about censorship. She had even received written commendations from Malatesta on how good the paper was looking.

Farr's removal as adviser drastically affected the newspaper staff, delaying production on the April issue with little help from acting adviser Malatesta. The Pennsylvania School Press Association and the Student Press Law Center rallied around Farr.

Farr is not alone in her astonishment, and her situation is not unique.

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, notes a dramatic increase in the number of requests for legal assistance at SPLC over the past decade. Before the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court's case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision gave high school administrators greater authority to control the content of student newspapers, SPLC received 548 requests. Ten years later, in 1998, requests had nearly tripled to 1,597.

Although many newspapers report censorship incidents, others are choosing to go with the administrative flow that draws its censorship powers from the Hazelwood case by allowing public school principals to act as publishers with the right to omit articles that are profane, libelous, obscene or disruptive to the school.

But First Amendment advocates in six states have secured passage of laws protecting students' free speech: California, Massachusetts, Iowa, Colorado, Kansas and Arkansas. These laws are the first step in underscoring the importance of protecting the First Amendment for students by giving student journalists more of the review power. Under most of the laws, the review scepter is passed from the principal to the adviser.

For example, the Arkansas law, which took effect Jan. 1, 1996, was a compromise between absolute student press freedom and absolute administrative control of the student press, mandating that administrators and journalism advisers work together to create written student publications guidelines. Thus, each school district may create its own policy, rather than having a statewide policy that would have been difficult to get various groups to agree on.

About a year after the bill took effect, Bruce Plopper, journalism professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and William D. Downs Jr., professor at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas, surveyed high school journalism advisers to determine how the law's guidelines were being implemented and what effects it had in helping students gain a freer high school press.

They found that some advisers simply didn't know Arkansas had a law on students' freedom of speech. Even worse, some schools hadn't created written student-publications policies, and principals were handing advisers administration-created policies.

Despite these pitfalls, Plopper, a major force behind the Arkansas Student Publications Act, said the law helped student expression.

“The data from our study show that there are now written publications guidelines in schools that before had none,” he said. “The data also show that advisers and administrators in some schools are working more closely than ever before, and that some schools that had written policies before the law took effect now have revised policies that protect student expression even more.”

But in Robin Farr's Pennsylvania school, administrators and advisers haven't been able to reconcile differences.

Goodman said Malatesta stepped over the legal boundaries with Farr's removal and censorship of the flatulence article. Leading up to this point, Malatesta also had vetoed other articles on topics such as abortion, football hazing, criticism of guidance counselors and criticism of the administration's handling of snow days.

“Not only is what the principal did wrong from an educational standpoint, but it's also legally wrong,” he said.

According to Pennsylvania's state code, school officials may remove obscene or libelous material and edit other material that would cause a substantial disruption or interference with school activities, but they may not censor or restrict material simply because it is critical of the school or its administration.

Thomas Eveslage, a Pennsylvania School Press executive board member and Temple University journalism professor, said, “The frustration was not due to the fact that this was a one-shot censorship issue. The school paper had been censored many times before and on a number of occasions been forced to substitute articles the day before production.”

He praised Farr and the Hat Chat staff for standing up for the paper's rights.

“Very seldom do you get an adviser and some very good students,” Eveslage said. “It's not too often when you have those kinds of students who believe they have been wronged and an adviser who is willing to go out on a limb (to protect the student's free-speech rights).”

Meanwhile, First Amendment advocates in other states — including Nebraska, Michigan, Alabama and Connecticut — are continuing with their efforts to pass student expression bills for high school journalists.

In Harvest, Ala., a few student journalists and an adviser tried to combat the Hazelwood storm with a student-expression bill. The staff of the Sparkman High School newspaper, the Crimson Crier, took its bill to the state Capital in Montgomery, lobbying for a law that transfers publishing discretion from the principal to the newspaper adviser. Its House sponsor, state Rep. Sue Schmitz, later withdrew the bill, after other legislators expressed support for amendments that she said would have destroyed the measure's intent.

Cathy McCandless, Crimson Crier adviser, said she would continue to fight pro-Hazelwood attitudes despite flak from the community about the bill, even though she said her paper didn't have a censorship problem.

Heather Greenemeier, 16, co-editor of the Crimson Crier, emphasized that students were not too young to know what is ethical and appropriate to print. “[Hazelwood was] fine for the time [it was] decided, but times have changed,” she said. “Students now mature earlier and need the chance to become responsible journalists.”

Despite the initial high hopes, the student editors involved with the Alabama student-expression bill met with some unpleasant realities. Crimson co-editor Jen Vaughn, 17, said the anti-Hazelwood battle was not as well received by the community as she thought it would be. She learned from the “outspoken ignorance” of the community that “not everyone is out for the students' well being.”

In Michigan, the fight for anti-Hazelwood legislation has been an up-and-down battle.

Gov. John Engler has stalled the measure, and sponsors of the Michigan Student Expression Bill are waiting to reintroduce it in the Legislature next fall, said Gloria Olman, an adviser of the Arrow, the Utica (Mich.) High School newspaper. She added that the biggest challenge for reintroducing the bill would be persuading newly elected officials to support it.

“It's a tough battle, but in the down time we are working to strengthen scholastic journalism and create a stronger foundation from which to work,” said Olman, a student newspaper adviser since 1977.

In teaching journalism, she added, it's not only important to stress student rights, but also student responsibility. She discusses ethics and student rights in her classes, but also points out that with those rights come tremendous responsibilities to report news fairly and objectively. Building this foundation will help build a stronger case for passing an anti-Hazelwood law, she said.

Marco Krcatovich, editor in chief of Holland (Mich.) High School's newspaper, the Holland Herald, said that after much censorship frustration on his paper, he finally decided to help in the anti-Hazelwood fight in Michigan.

“In all my other classes, we talk about the basic rights students have, and to get into journalism and find that in journalism we don't have those basic rights, was painful,” he said. “I want to prove to teachers that (free-speech) rights are not something you walk into school and lose.”

Krcatovich hopes the support of Mayor Al McGeehan will help turn around the student-expression fight in favor of anti-Hazelwood legislation. He plans to spend the summer before he leaves for the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor trying to sway younger community leaders to support student free expression.

Although the battle against Hazelwood is a tough climb, backers of free speech for students note the importance of such persistence and activism.

Robert Berretta, 17, assistant editor of Hat Chat, who has been actively involved in the struggle over Farr's dismissal, said, “Most student journalists just say, 'Oh, yeah, there's that thing called Hazelwood, and that means we have no rights.' I think more classes outside of Pennsylvania need to alert their students about their rights as student journalists.”

Olman echoed Beretta's sentiments.

“It's very critical (for people to get involved), and it's not something we can just sit back and say, 'Let someone else do it,' ” Olman said.