Extra Censory

In Arizona, high school administrators can decide what may or may not be published in student newspapers. They are not bashful about protecting their own interests.

The journalism curriculum at Tolleson Union High School includes a text titled Press Time that extols students' First Amendment rights, declaring, "This famous amendment reads in part, 'Congress shall make no law . . . abridging freedom of speech, or of the press . . . '"

But when student reporters try to exercise their First Amendment rights, they learn something else entirely.

In February 1996, Michelle Beaver, opinion editor of the Tolleson High newspaper, The Wolver, prepared a two-page spread of columns and letters about a controversial new math program.

Beaver had interviewed math teachers who didn't care for the curriculum, and felt that since the taxpayers were paying for the math program, they should know about it.

But the day before the paper was to be printed, Beaver's newspaper adviser, Daryl James, got a note from Tolleson Union's principal, Joe Rega.

Beaver recalls, "Mr. James had got a note, a Post-it, that said something along the lines of, 'Under no circumstances will these pages print. I repeat, do not print these pages.' That was pretty extreme. It was an odd feeling."

The next day The Wolver was printed without the two-page spread.
Beaver's work had been censored.
She is not alone.

Thanks to a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision, school administrators in Arizona and most other states have the power to preview and censor student publications.

It is not uncommon for Arizona's budding journalists to see their work quashed by administrators who say some material would be detrimental to students.

But some of it also could be detrimental to the image of the school, and the administration:

* At Westview High in 1995, a story about a survey of students' sexual experiences was suppressed. Another time, a story about an employee pay dispute was altered.

* At Greenway High in 1992, stories about drug dealing on campus and the accidental death of a student near the school were suppressed by the principal.

* In 1991 at Amphitheater High in Tucson, the principal tried to cancel the newspaper staff's trip to a convention because she was angry over a photo and news story in the student paper.

Many educators believe prior review is necessary to protect district taxpayers.

"You can have people maligned, impugned or slandered," says Jack Peterson, director of the Arizona School Boards Association. If someone is libeled, he says, the district could be held liable.

But Daryl James, adviser to The Wolver, believes the Supreme Court ruling has put too much power in the hands of school administrators.

"Principals have so much power that it's real easy to abuse it," says James. "They've gone too far with their power and they start censoring stories that really aren't to protect the children but to protect the image of the school."

Student reporters at a suburban St. Louis high school wrote stories dealing with teenage pregnancy and the effects of divorce on children. Those stories contained talk from some students about their sexual experiences and use of birth control. The principal censored those pages.

The case now known as the Hazlewood School District v. Kuhlmeier upheld the principal's decision.

The U.S. Supreme Court felt that the material was inappropriate in a school-sponsored publication distributed to 14-year-old freshmen.

This decision affected other student media, including yearbooks, literary magazines and radio and TV programs. The court's ruling went against the standard it set in a 1969 case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, where students were suspended from school for wearing black arm bands in protest of the Vietnam War.

In that case, the high court ruled that school officials could only limit student free expression if they could prove it would disrupt school activities or invade the rights of others.

Hazlewood was treated differently. The court classified the student newspaper as a "non-forum school-sponsored activity," because the newspaper never labeled the paper as a forum in any of its written policies. The court said a public forum is created when "by policy or practice" school officials open up a publication to the unrestricted use of students.

In Hazlewood, the court ruled that if a school administrator can present a reasonable educational justification for censorship, it will be allowed. It ruled that principals may essentially act as publishers.

Hazlewood is the law in 44 states. Only Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas and Massachusetts have adopted laws guaranteeing students the right to free expression. Illinois has a similar bill awaiting the governor's signature, according to Mark Goodman, director of Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., an organization that assists student journalists across the country.

"Some 28 states have considered this kind of legislation," says Goodman, whose organization has had almost 6,000 requests for legal assistance between 1992-95.

Arizona was one of those states.

Michelle Beaver's ill-fated opinion project was inspired by a new math program called PRISMS Core that had been introduced in the school district during the 1995-96 school year. The two-page spread was to include a column by her and a math teacher, both unfavorable toward the program, and letters to the editor, most of which expressed concerns about the program.

PRISMS is an acronym for Project Reform: Implementing Secondary Mathematics Standards. It's a system of integrated mathematics--for example, instead of learning geometry as an isolated subject, the new program combines geometry and other math subjects into one course of study.

The Tolleson district paid up to $500,000 to implement this program and hire teachers to write the textbook and develop the lesson plans.

In their opinion columns, Beaver and the math teacher expressed concerns over the program's efficacy. Beaver's column quoted another math teacher as saying that the program would not prepare students for higher levels of math.

Newspaper adviser James felt the program "was the pet project of the superintendent and the assistant superintendent."

Principal Rega felt that the material was biased. "I just don't think they did their homework," Rega tells New Times. "I told them if they wanted to put that out in the following month's newspaper with balance, then I'd have no problem with it."

Rega concedes that a principal's job could be jeopardized by a "scathing and unbalanced" article. He also acknowledged that district administrators and school board members were not eager to see the package published.

"If a story ran about a math program that a school board member put all of his heart into, it could upset them," Rega says.

James counters: "Whether the math program is good or not was not really the issue. The issue is should my students have the right to comment on the new math program, especially since the district invested a half-million dollars in the development of the program."

James says that for the very next issue of The Wolver, another editor submitted an opinion piece on censorship. But Rega balked again.

"The principal said we couldn't run it in the form that it is written," James says. The author rewrote it and submitted it again.

"He wanted it to be watered down so much that there wouldn't be much point to running it. He even wanted the word 'censorship' taken out because he said that is not a correct word. 'Editorial privilege' is what he wanted." It never was published.

About six weeks after Rega ordered the section about the PRISMS project suppressed, James was notified that he would be transferred to another district school, Westview High in Avondale, the following year.

"The principal had said that there would have to be a change in arrangements made because he was tired of spending so much energy on this newspaper, and since he and I don't think alike that there would have to be some changes made," James says.

Rega denies that James was transferred because of disputes over the content of the newspaper. Rega says he was forced to find another adviser for Tolleson's journalism program because of a seniority-based placement clause in James' contract.

Beaver and her peers were sad to see James go.
"I considered him to be one of the smartest people I ever met," she says. "He could get you to think. He didn't think for you."

Beaver and staffers at the paper were ready to give up until they attended the Arizona Interscholastic Press Association conference in Tucson.

Mark Goodman of the Student Press Law Center was the keynote speaker, and planted the idea in their minds to draft anticensorship legislation.

Beaver contacted Senator Joe Eddie Lopez and got him copies of bills that have passed elsewhere. He drafted Senate Bill 1282.

When the measure was heard by the Senate Education Committee, only Beaver, James and his wife were present to testify.

Beaver spoke first. James followed.
"Together we were a good team. I spoke about the emotional impact of [censorship] and he spoke about who supported it and why," says Beaver.

Out of the seven members of the committee, only one person voted for SB1282, Senator Joe Eddie Lopez.

It wasn't the first time the Legislature had booted a student free-expression bill.

Similar legislation was introduced twice by Stan Furman, who is no longer a legislator. Like Lopez, Furman was inspired to introduce the legislation by a student, Kimberly Yee of Greenway High School's Demon Dispatch.

Yee wrote a story about drug dealing in the campus parking lot. She also drew editorial cartoons that didn't run.

She drew a caricature of the principal, Ed Murphy. Her adviser, Peggy Gregory, asked her not to run the cartoon. Yee instead ran a blank space where the cartoon was supposed to be. The space had the word "censored" written across it.

Furman met Yee at a Greenway School Board meeting and became interested in legislation freeing students from the bonds of Hazlewood.

Yee testified before the Senate Education Committee in 1992.
Murphy, the Greenway principal, testified against Furman's bill. He says a high school paper operates under a different context than a regular daily newspaper.

"As an administrator that is responsible for a high school, you're looking at dealing with students that are 13 through 18," says Murphy, who is now the administrator of personnel at the Glendale Union High School District.

"I think it's a unique situation in an educational setting. You're talking about kids who are not adults and some that are very young at 13 that might not be as well-equipped to handle some issues that 18-year-olds would," says Murphy, whose daughter won journalist of the year in 1994 as a reporter for the Demon Dispatch.

But Furman believed Yee's story was accurate and should not have been censored.

"The grounds for killing the story were not the accuracy of the story but that it would be detrimental to the image of the school," says Furman.

Murphy could not recall the story Yee wrote. During the 11 years he was principal at Greenway, he said that the newspaper regularly published stories dealing with drugs and sexuality. But he also said that the administration has always tried to assure that the newspaper presented a balanced picture.

The year that Yee's story was spiked, another journalist wrote about a lunchtime car and motorcycle collision that killed a Greenway student. Murphy vetoed the story because he felt the incident had been too traumatic.

The Demon Dispatch wanted to print a photo of the accident scene, says Murphy.

"I told them that it wouldn't serve any real good purpose to have them reopen these wounds by putting in pictures of this kid's body in the street in our paper," says Murphy. "I was coming down on the side of trying to be sensitive in that regard rather than First Amendment freedom for students of the press."

In 1994, Furman introduced the bill again, but it never was assigned to committee.

Furman's bill was different from Lopez's in that it would have guaranteed free expression to student publications at public colleges and universities.

Lopez's bill dealt only with high school media, and it also contained protections for the newspaper adviser, saying, "No adviser may be fired or transferred for refusing to suppress the free-expression rights of students."

Sometimes a decision to run a story against the administration's wishes could affect an adviser's job security.

"You're standing on the top of a wall, and on one side of the wall is the administration who has hired you and to whom you're responsible. On the other side are emerging journalists you're trying to teach about freedom of the press," says Peggy Gregory, the newspaper adviser at Greenway High since the school opened 24 years ago.

Tony Gomez, newspaper adviser for Amphitheater High School in Tucson, was going to take his newspaper staff to a national journalism conference in Albuquerque.

Their trip was canceled by the principal, who took issue with a story and two photographs in the March 1991 edition of the Desert Gazette, the Amphitheater newspaper.

There was a picture of a teacher holding a cup of coffee in the school hallway--in violation of a school rule which prohibits food and drink in the hallways. An accompanying news story was about the rule itself.

The principal felt that the photo defamed the teacher.
Also, the Desert Gazette had a story criticizing the police department's "Drug Free School Zone" on the campus. According to the principal, the story cost the school police support for the zone.

After those stories and photos were published, the principal announced that she intended to begin exercising her privilege to preview the Desert Gazette.

Gomez received a letter from the principal announcing that the trip to Albuquerque was off. His students decided not to give in to the principal's demands. The staff decided to continue gathering information for stories, but stop publishing the paper.

This incident came to the attention of the Tucson media; a story about the controversy appeared in the Arizona Daily Star.

The school board met with Gomez and the principal to discuss it. The principal held firm to her demands.

After the meeting, Desert Gazette staffers held a press conference. Two Tucson TV stations aired the press conference, and the Arizona Daily Star ran a story the following day.

The school board overruled the principal and said the students could attend the convention.

Another school board meeting was held to discuss prior review. Students pleaded with the board to let them express themselves in the paper.

The school board president recommended that the Desert Gazette apologize to the teacher for the photo. The Desert Gazette staff agreed.

The board president also recommended that the principal reconsider her prior-review decision.

The principal relented and the Desert Gazette didn't stop publishing.
Media coverage of the dispute caused a sea change. Call it the power of a free press.

High school journalists' stories that deal with controversial issues like sex and drugs are heavily scrutinized.

Two years ago, the introductory journalism class at Westview High School conducted sex surveys for two weeks and interviewed members of the student body about their sexual activity.

Melissa Connerly wrote a story about promiscuity and the use of birth control.

The file folder that the Knightly News editor submitted to the assistant principal came back without the sex-survey stories in it. Connerly's story was replaced with other material.

"I think he wanted everybody to see that everybody at Westview was a virgin, and we didn't even know what condoms were, because we don't have sex," Connerly says.

She says that prior review is so routine that students expect their stories to be suppressed.

"We're scared to do the really good stories because who wants to put a month's worth of work into an in-depth story only to have it pulled at the last minute," says Connerly.

She says that the paper sticks to safe stories, like sports coverage and the repainting of the boys' locker room.

"When you take stories and you make them sound good to a certain person [the principal], that's not journalism," says Connerly.

This past school year, employees at Tolleson and Westview high schools were at odds with district officials over back pay. Wages for the 1996-97 school year had been frozen to offset a deficit.

During the last weeks of the school year, a majority of the teachers and support staff dressed in black tee shirts in a show of solidarity and protest.

Marvin Hanashiro, editor of the Knightly News, wrote a story about the dispute.

On the day of deadline, Hanashiro turned his story in to Westview principal Steve Knight.

Knight didn't like it and faxed copies of the story to superintendent Kino Flores and members of the school board, according to Hanashiro.

Knight tells New Times that the story contained inaccuracies, and was biased in favor of the teachers. He wanted Flores and the school board to approve the story before it was published.

Hanashiro says he negotiated with Flores to print a slightly different version of the story.

"This time, Mr. Flores had more quotes or more explanations for his actions in the story," says Hanashiro, who graduated from Westview. In the first version, Hanashiro had gotten his information about Flores' views from a district spokesman, Hanashiro says.

Knight says Flores didn't approve of the story, but it ran anyway.
"It was an embarrassment to the superintendent, because it was not factual," says Knight.

He says the version that ran still gave more light to the teachers' side rather than the superintendent's.

Students and educators alike believe that a free-expression bill could never pass in the state of Arizona.

Sponsor Joe Eddie Lopez plans to reintroduce his bill during the next legislative session. But he's not optimistic.

"If a proper job in educating the Legislature is done, a majority of them can be swayed," says Lopez, one of 12 Democratic representatives that make up the 30-member Senate.

During the last session, Lopez was the only lawmaker to vote for the bill because legislators like John Huppenthal felt that high school publications don't operate like professional media.

"When student publications work someone over with a hatchet, you can't define whose words those are," says Huppenthal.

Huppenthal's views echo those of the Arizona School Board Association's, in that legally and organizationally, there is no clear entity that can be held responsible for a story.

During the last session, Lopez's bill wasn't on the agenda until the Senate's last day to hear it. Lopez had to make a special request for the bill to be heard. No one lobbied for the bill.

"If nobody is going to lobby for this legislation, and if young people and their parents aren't going to contact the Legislature with their concerns, then this legislation is not going to go anywhere," says Lopez.

Mark Goodman of the Student Press Law Center says most states where legislation has been introduced have failed to exempt schools from Hazlewood.

"The problem is that we're talking about laws that affect or benefit people who are pretty politically powerless and as a result not very influential--high school students," Goodman says.

Michelle Beaver believes a bill like Lopez's will never pass in Arizona. She spent almost two years of fighting and debating with her principal, superintendent and the Arizona Legislature.

For Beaver, journalism has lost much of its allure at Tolleson. Her desire to explore challenging issues has eroded. She says the ordeal with Rega "kind of limited us to [writing] 'Betty the Cafeteria Lady Quits.' . . . Administrators don't care if the school has a really good paper. The only reason why they would care is if you bring home a nice big award--and we did that.

"They did their best to exterminate us." Beaver, who is entering her senior year, will not work on the newspaper.

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