Students say principal’s decision to confiscate newspapers stinks

PENNSYLVANIA — A student newspaper column about the results of”overactive intestinal bacteria,” inspired more than a few laughs at Hatboro-HorshamHigh School; it sparked the confiscation of the entire Feb. 15 press run.

Acting principal Connie Malatesta found the humorous article about flatulenceso foul that she locked all 1,200 copies of The Hat Chat in a safeand fired the adviser.

The administration paid $800 to reprint the issue with a black box coveringthe column.

Malatesta told The Philadelphia Inquirer that the column was “inappropriate.”

“We don’t want the Beavis and Butthead mentality to take over,” shesaid.

But Hat Chat editors said Malatesta’s actions reeked of censorship,and they asked the school board to reinstate their adviser and prohibitHatboro-Horsham administrators from censoring the newspaper.

“It was clearly an excuse,” said former newspaper adviser Robin Farr.”The farting article was an opportunity for them to attempt to tag thewords obscene and substantially disruptive on an article, pull the article,fire me and think they were justified, when in fact the whole thing hadto do with control over the paper and making sure that there were no ‘negativearticles’ in the paper.”

Editors argued that Malatesta violated a section of the state boardof education regulations, the Pennsylvania Code, that says “students havea right and are as free as editors of other newspapers to report the newsand editorialize” in their school newspapers.

Although state law permits school officials to review student newspapersprior to publication, it requires schools to establish a limitation onthe time needed to make a decision. If the prescribed time has elapsedwithout a decision, the “material shall be considered authorized for distribution,”according to the law.

Hat Chat editors said Malatesta had already reviewed the newspaperbefore it went to the printer. In fact, the column about flatulence wasincluded in the newspaper to replace two commentaries for and against abortionthat the principal had already censored.

Editors argued that Malatesta’s decision to confiscate the newspapersafter she had already had a chance to review the issue violated the statecode.

Malatesta declined to comment on the situation.

Hat Chat editor Jerome Murphy told the school board that newspaperstaff members were upset over more than just the suppression of a humorouspiece on flatulence, they were troubled by what they saw as a pattern ofcensorship.

“Before you say, ‘Yes, remove the irresponsible adviser. Yes, teachthose kids a lesson about the real world,’ and before you write the newspaperstaff off as a bunch of Beavises and Buttheads screaming, ‘Censorship!’and ‘Free Speech!’ you should know the real picture,” Murphy said.

He told the board that administrators had been censoring newspaper articlesthat they felt portrayed the school in a negative light for the past threeyears.

“As Mrs. Malatesta will tell you, if we were a bunch of kids who reallywanted to be screaming censorship, we could have been doing that a longtime ago,” Murphy told the board. “All year we have made all requestedchanges to the Hat Chat before it went [to press].”

Hat Chat assistant editor Rob Berretta said that in the Feb. 15issue alone, administrators censored the two opinion pieces on abortion,an editorial cartoon and two photographs from the school’s One-Act Playfestival that depicted violence and alcohol consumption.

Although the school board sided with the principal, administrators metwith editors the next day to discuss issues students had brought up atthe meeting. Director of secondary education David Hottenstein asked theeditors to develop a set of guidelines for running the newspaper.

Berretta said editors want the school board to adopt a policy that isin accordance with the Pennsylvania Code’s guidelines for school-sponsoredpublications. In addition to requiring administrators to review each issueof the newspaper within a specific time frame, the code bars school officialsfrom censoring or restricting material “simply because it is critical ofthe school or its administration.”

“Our main goal is to gather our rights and to have the school acknowledgethem according to the Pennsylvania state code,” Berretta said.

He added that prior to the confiscation, newspaper staffers did notrealize they had any free-press rights under state law, which is why theyhad never fought attempts to censor the paper before.

“Whenever [school officials] came down to censor stuff, we were madabout it, but we didn’t think we had any rights,” Berretta said.

The Pennsylvania School Press Association and the Journalism EducationAssociation have sent letters to school officials criticizing Malatesta’sactions. PSPA has threatened to file a formal complaint with the stateattorney general if the district does not revise its guidelines to complywith the Pennsylvania Code.

“If nothing else,” Farr said, “the kids have already made a huge stepby the administration knowing what the staff is allowed to print and whatthey’re not allowed to print. The administration knows they crossed theline.”