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Trends in High School Media

An online publication of the National Scholastic Press Association

School loses adviser in censorship dispute
Salem, Mass., school administrators delay publication of critical articles

By Jim Martyka

There is still tension between administrators and student journalists at Salem (Mass.) High School, stemming from a December dispute that caused the temporary stoppage of publishing the Witches Brew, the public school's student run newspaper.

While the publication was finally printed (after a number of changes), there is still a feeling among students editors and journalism organizations that the school abused its power and censored the publication unfairly. Meanwhile, school officials still seem to be giving conflicting answers as to why exactly the newspaper was pulled in the first place. And the aftermath of the issue includes an adviser that felt the only solution was a resignation and a school that is now under the close scrutiny of national media organizations.

"The actions by the school administrators show that they are not respecting the freedom of the press," said Mark Goodman," executive director of the Student Press Law Center. "It's unfortunate when something like this happens, when school officials feel the need to censor, especially when it seems like the students were doing the job of any good journalist. It's sad."

The issue dates back to December when student journalists at the Witches Brew wanted to publish a series of articles that were critical of some of Principal Ann Papagiotas' school policies. There were a total of three stories. The first addressed a school-wide ban on wearing hats in the school, citing how other schools did not enforce such a policy and that some students found banning hats a way to block freedom of expression. Another addressed a policy that banned eating in class, citing arguments that some students didn't have other opportunities to eat during the day because of class, study halls or other activities. A third story was a survey-like piece that addressed a perceived lower morale among students.

Papagiotas halted the production of the paper until some changes were made to the stories, a move than many of the student journalists felt was unjust.

"(The Witches Brew) is the student view," said co-editor Todd Graham in an article published in the Salem News. Student editors could not be reached for this story. "It's our voice, and this is what the paper is meant to be."

Nevertheless, student editors agreed to certain changes in order to get the publication printed. It still took the administration a couple weeks to approve the changes and print the newspaper, leaving a bad taste in the young journalists� mouths. The main problem, some said, is that the administration seems to keep changing its reasoning for pulling the paper and for delaying its publication.

Initially, Papagiotas said she stopped the paper because the stories were unbalanced and unfair. She ordered that the students allow more of the administration's side of the story in the pieces. For example, she explained that the banning of food in the classroom was forced because of a mouse problem at the school, an explanation that was missing from the initial story.

However, school superintendent Herb Levine, in an interview with The Salem News in which he defended the principal's actions, later said Papagiotas wasn't allowing the newspaper to publish because some of the opinions in the articles could be qualified as "disruption or disorder" that might spark arguments.

Journalism officials don't agree.

"That doesn't seem like a legitimate excuse because these weren't really hot topics," Goodman said. "And even if they were, it's good to have debate on these kinds of things. It seems like this was an excuse that would conveniently fit under high school student journalism law."

And that's a gray area in itself. In the 1969 ruling Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the court said that public school authorities are allowed to regulate student expression that disrupts the school environment. However, it clearly spells out that fear of disruption is not enough. But later, in the 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kulhmeier decision, the Supreme Court said a school is permitted editorial control over newspaper content if school officials can show that it is "reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns." Still later in 1988, the Massachusetts Legislature enacted a student free expression law that lessened the impact of Hazelwood.

Whether Papagiotas was in the right or in the wrong legally, the school once again changed its tune recently.

"The stories were one-sided, but the main reason the printing was stopped was because of all of the grammatical errors in the copy," said Sam Scuderi, assistant principal. "We felt it was within our right to do what we did because our policy is that the newspaper falls under the journalism curriculum. Basically, it is part of a class and subject to revision."

Still, that attitude cost the school its adviser, Pamela Hebert, who stated she was �too nervous to take the risk of continuing with the school newspaper,� in a letter to administrators obtained by the Salem News. Even more important, the issue has put the school under the close watch of journalism groups.

"I hope things change," Goodman said. "I know they eventually printed, but it seems like the students had to give up quite a bit. That's not a good learning experience."

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