Mich. principal censors investigative story and editorial on lawsuit facing school

MICHIGAN — Student journalists at Utica High Schoolare fuming after their principal censored their award-winningschool newspaper’s coverage of a highly publicized pending lawsuitinvolving allegations that the school district’s bus depot causeshealth problems for area residents.

Principal Richard Machesky forced the Arrow staff toremove a front-page story written for the March 15 issue of thepaper about a lawsuit the school faces from a resident claimingschool bus exhaust fumes caused his lung cancer. Machesky alsoobjected to an editorial and accompanying cartoon that suggestedthe bus depot should be moved from its current location, whichis near an elementary school, playing fields and a neighborhood.

"The Arrow is a school-sponsored, curriculum-basedpublication, over which the school exercises a great deal of control,"Machesky wrote in a letter to the staff. He said he chose to withholdthe items due to "factual errors," and SuperintendentJoan Sergent supported his decision.

Utica administrators declined to comment about the incident,but said in letters to the students that they did not think theiractions constituted censorship, since they do not see the Arrowas an open public forum.

The day the issue was set to go to press, March 7, the Arrowstaff replaced the controversial article with a story titled "Welderscompete at regionals." They replaced the pulled editorialwith one that attacked censorship and outlined freedom of speech,accompanied by a large black box in which the word "Censored"appeared.

Julie Wojciechowski, the Arrow‘s senior managing editor,said the staff was "upset and confused" over the pulled article.

Katy Dean, the author of the article, has vowed to sue theschool if necessary and is currently looking for legal representation.

The rest of the Arrow staff is determined to get realanswers from the administration as to why the story was pulled,Wojciechowski said.

"We just want reasons as to why our story was censored,because we don’t really have any rights now," she said. "So,we’re going to go down and we’re going be investigators and reporters,who we’ve been trained to be."

"One of the most important freedoms Americans have isfreedom of the press," reads an editorial Wojciechowski andother staff members wrote. "Papers around the world arecensored for trying to cover important issues. The struggle toprotect our freedoms does not begin in Afghanistan, but righthere in our classrooms. We must fight for our freedoms at homeas well as abroad."

The editorial refers to the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decisionin Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier saying, "Schoolshave the right to censor in specific instances, but only whereit interferes with their ‘pedagogical functions.’ While [Hazelwood]does apply in some cases, it is not a blanket right to use inall instances. The high school newspaper should not be a publicrelations tool of the district."

The Macomb Daily ran all of the material Machesky pulledfrom the Arrow on April 7, unedited.

"A lot of the teachers have been telling me that if [theadministration] hadn’t censored the story, they would have beenbetter off, because in reality it’s a student newspaper,"Wojciechowski said. "You would have had maybe 200 studentsread the newspaper, 50 parents, and just let it go. They wereapparently concerned with their image, and now they destroyedit even more by letting it get to the big paper."

Read the Arrow‘s censored story and editorial, printed in the Macomb Daily on April 7.