Independent paper is latest victim at La. school district known for censorship

LOUISIANA — If there were a "Censor Olympics,"St. Tammany Parish School District near New Orleans would likelytake home bronze, silver and gold medals for its ongoing suppressionof free speech.

In the mid-1990s, the American Civil Liberties Union sued thedistrict for banning the book Voodoo & Hoodoo and won.Then, in 2000 the ACLU again sued the district for a gag orderit placed on parent Dana Thompson at a school board meeting. Morerecently, in February the principal at Fontainebleau High Schoolin the district forced students to alter an article on teen pregnanciesbefore he would let it run.

In the latest saga of censorship, principal Ron Styron at MandevilleHigh School banned the distribution of an independent studentnewspaper because he said it had an unfair advantage over theschool-sponsored newspapers, which fall prey to his censorship.

In an e-mail to Above Underground, he said his decisionin early March to clamp down on distribution was done "outof fairness" to school publications that "must workthrough sponsors and administrators before distribution."Prior to this, distribution had been allowed before and afterschool.

School board member Neal Hennegan said Superintendent LeonardMonteleone had expressed his dislike for the paper several weeksprior to Styron’s ban, but did not know if he had initiated theban.

Hennegan said he planned to question the constitutionalityof and reasoning for the ban at an upcoming April board meeting.

Above Underground is "slick" and "veryprofessional," Hennegan said, and there is burgeoning communitysupport for the paper. After the ban at Mandeville, local networknews channels rushed in to cover the story.

The content does not include anything controversial or unfitfor a mainstream newspaper, Hennegan said.

"We’re real careful about content," said Andrew Preble,editor of Above Underground. In an e-mail Preble sent toprincipals at three St. Tammany Parish high schools after Styron’sban, he challenged them "to find something in our paper thatthey wouldn’t allow in the official school newspaper.

He did not immediately receive a response.

Preble, a junior at Fontainebleau High School, has no priorjournalism experience but said he developed an interest in desktoppublishing since his father works in public relations.

Above Underground is entirely student-run and is supportedby local advertising, Preble said.

"[Styron] stopping us really hasn’t hurt us that much,"Preble said, adding that circulation of Above Underground hasgrown immensely since its first issue last December and is nowclose to 7,000 copies across several St. Tammany Parish high schools."We’d like to be able to pass them out at his school, andwe’re hoping that he compromises," he said.

Before the ban, Above Underground was distributed atMandeville, Fontainebleau and Covington high schools.

"It’s our purpose to be fun, interesting and just somethingpositive for students. Some kids do drugs and some kids vandalizestuff, and we like to do this paper," he said.

Hennegan said the past history of censorship in St. TammanyParish is unfortunate, but he sees it as a product of the community,an upscale "bedroom community" for New Orleans.

"The schools from Louisiana standards are the best inthe state and the administration and some of the board members think they can kind of flaunt the laws, or people have to dowhat they say," he said. "That’s unfortunately the attitude,and then we get into problems like this."

Despite his prior review of the Gazette article on teenpregnancies in February, Fontainebleau principal Randy Morganhas not clamped down on distribution of Above Undergroundin his school, Preble said.

Preble said he hopes to resolve the distribution ban outsideof court.

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