Students fight for free press

NEW YORK — The student newspaper at Freeport High Schoolwon a fight to retain the free-press guidelines it has operated under for30 years in November.

After The New York Times published a commentary criticizing theschool board’s attempt to establish administrative control over the newspaperand a camera crew from the Freedom Forum showed up at one of their meetings,the school board relented and decided to drop its efforts to eliminatethe free-press guidelines. In December, it appeared that the student newspaperat Freeport High School would once again be free.

“I think [the school board members] were very surprised,” said MichaelLeonard, Flashings news editor. “I think they just expected us tobe handing out fliers and talking to people, which we were doing anyway,but not for cameras to be up in their faces … and ACLU people comingto the podium to speak.”

Leonard attributed the newspaper staff’s success in reviving the free-pressguidelines to its ability to draw attention to its cause. But althoughthe situation looks promising, Leonard said nothing is definite yet. Schoolofficials and Flashings editors still have to establish a new setof guidelines before the editors are willing to begin work on the firstissue.

“We haven’t come to an agreement yet, but we think we’re on the wayto doing that,” Leonard said. “We don’t want to work without definite guidelines.”

For 30 years, the student newspaper at Freeport High School had operatedunder guidelines that gave the editorial staff absolute control over itscontent. During that time, the newspaper won numerous awards and dozensof former editors went on to prominent careers in journalism.

But in September, school officials announced their decision to abolishthe free-press guidelines and replace them with a set of guidelines thatwould take the editorial control away from the students and ultimatelyplace it in the hands of the district superintendent.

Leonard said Anthony Ciaglia, the district’s assistant superintendentfor curriculum and instruction, told him the statement of intent — theoriginal free-press guidelines — was being eliminated to reduce the schooldistrict’s legal liabilities.

Ciaglia did not return calls made to his office by the Report requestingcomment, but Michael Conte, a public relations consultant hired by theFreeport school district, returned a call made by the Report to Ciaglia’soffice.

“[The original statement of intent] is not reflective of the way inwhich our schools are run today and the way in which our society has evolved,”Conte said prior to the school board’s decision not to adopt the new, morerestrictive guidelines.

He said the clause in the statement of intent requiring the involvementof the Flashings editorial staff in selecting a newspaper adviserwas not reflective of schools today because “students should not be broughtinto a hiring process.” The statement of intent required the selectionof an adviser to be done jointly by the high school administration, theFlashings editorial board and the interested teacher.

“That element of the [original] letter of intent was ill-conceived,”said Conte, who authored the new guidelines. “That’s not what kids do.Kids are there to learn. They’re not there to decide who they should hireto teach them.”

The new guidelines stated that a faculty adviser for the newspaper wouldbe appointed by the board of education on a yearly basis.

Conte said the original press guidelines were changed because the newprincipal of Freeport, Lottie Taylor-Northover, wanted to replace longtimeFlashings adviser Ira Schildkraut.

But Conte refuted the idea that the new guidelines would take editorialcontrol over the newspaper away from the students, despite the guidelines’stipulation that a committee be created to review any articles the facultyadviser sees as “needlessly sensational, personally hurtful or potentiallylitigious.”

Under the original guidelines, the decision to print an article restedsolely in the hands of the editorial board, which was made up entirelyof students.

“No one’s suggested that the editorial control doesn’t rest with thestaff,” Conte said. “In fact, it does. But you’ll note in the letter ofintent it says that if the faculty adviser sees something that is ill-conceivedand potentially either litigious or insensitive or does not abide by thegood rules of journalism, then it is the obligation of the professional– the faculty adviser — to bring that to the attention of a review committee.So, a review committee is not going to be [formed] unless a professionalis deeming that we have a potential problem. And why is that the case?Because kids are still kids.”

The guidelines specified that the review committee would be comprisedof three members of the student government association, the principal,the assistant superintendent and the faculty adviser. If the review committeewas divided, the guidelines authorized the superintendent to make the finaldecision.

Conte could not point to a specific incident in the past 30 years thatprompted a change in the guidelines, saying only that times change, andeven though the school had never been sued for anything Flashings hadprinted in the past, “there are new kids writing the newspaper every year,”he said.

“We live in a society 30 years after that last letter was written inwhich we have become a lot more litigious society, and we have become aplace where it’s a lot easier to either offend people or be insensitiveto people, even unknowingly so,” Conte said. “And I maintain that studentsin an instructional setting still need guidance. … They may, at times,unwittingly do something to besmirch their reputation and potentially dosomething to besmirch the reputation of their school district or bringabout litigation.”

“I think if the district was taking editorial control away, kids wouldprobably be less interested, but I don’t believe that they are,” Contesaid.

In fact, the entire Flashings editorial staff had refused to workunder the new guidelines. On a Web site the staff created to arouse interestin its situation, it said the proposed letter of intent “will completelyeliminate Flashings’ status as a free student forum.”

Leonard questioned the need to change the guidelines just because theywere written 30 years ago.

“People say 30 years is really old, but that statement of intent hasbeen working for us since last year and the year before,” Leonard said.”People will say it’s 30 years old and outdated, but it’s been workingsince five months ago.”

The Flashings editors first learned that the free-press guidelineswere in jeopardy on the day their first staff meeting was scheduled totake place. On that day, their principal, Taylor-Northover, told the adviserhe was fired. Then she told the students that the statement of intent wasgone, and the newspaper itself had been eliminated.

Adam Gaffney, the editor of Flashings, said the principal’s actionstook him by surprise.

“Originally, our adviser told us to start working on Flashings,” he said. “We had signs up in the school, and we made announcements forthe first staff meeting. Then, the day of the first meeting, the adviserwas told that he would no longer be the adviser, and therefore, the meetingthat day had to be canceled.”

Gaffney said Taylor-Northover did not give the editorial staff a reasonfor halting thenewspaper, but told him she removed Schildkraut to give someone elsean opportunity to oversee the paper.

Taylor-Northover declined to comment on the situation.

Schildkraut said he had no idea he would be fired from his positionas adviser to Flashings. He said he was “devastated” when Taylor-Northovertold him he was being removed from the position he had held for 29 years.

Schildkraut said many former Flashingseditors have gone on tocareers in journalism, including one whose nonfiction book was on TheNew York Times’ best-seller list for more than 10 weeks. While he wasadviser, two of the articles Flashings published prompted investigationsby the Nassau County district attorney’s office.

Before the school board reversed its decision to implement the new guidelines,Schildkraut had said he was troubled that future students would not havethe opportunity to work under what he characterized as “innovative, butworkable” guidelines.

“I’m concerned about the fact that after 29 years of good journalism,there is no high school newspaper in this building,” he said. “I’m concernedthat students who are interested in journalism-serious journalism-are beingdeprived of the opportunity to practice it.”

Michael Zielenziger, a former Flashings editor and graduate ofFreeport High School, was also concerned that future students would nothave the experience of working on a newspaper with free-press guidelines.Zielenziger, now the Tokyo bureau chief for Knight-Ridder Newspapers, hadcontacted Freeport officials to try to convince them to restore the originalstatement of intent.

He said the free-press guidelines made it possible for him to pursuestories that theadministration may not have liked, including a controversial storyabout an overseas study tour targeted to Freeport students. The story eventuallyled to charges of consumer fraud being leveled against the tour company.

“Without the kind of freedom of press we knew we enjoyed, that storywould never have been published,” Zielenziger said. “No doubt, those whowould shackle the paper now wouldn’t run that story.”

Zielenziger credits his experience working on Flashings with hissuccess as a journalist. The story he broke about the tour company ledto a summer internship at Newsday, where he worked for three consecutivesummers.

“There’s no question that the freedom granted me as a journalist atFlashings, as well as the tutelage of Ira Schildkraut, a conscientiousand challenging teacher with a deep respect for the First Amendment, taughtme invaluable lessons that helped me find a career,” Zielenziger said.

For now, the Flashings staff is working with an attorney fromthe NYCLU on a new set of guidelines it plans to propose to the schoolboard. The new guidelines will continue to guarantee the editors of thenewspaper the freedom to publish without any administrative control. Thestaff’s proposal also contains a provision allowing the staff to confidentiallysubmit any article it has legal concerns about to the school district’sattorneys for review.

Overall, Leonard said, he is pleased with the outcome of the staff’scampaign to restore Flashings’ free-press guidelines.

“It’s gone very well,” he said. “I think we had an objective in thebeginning, and we’re approaching that objective now.”

“It shows that three or four kids can actually go up against an administrationand make them back down.”

Visit the SaveFlashings Web site.