Editor suspended from duties for advertising Web site

FLORIDA — High school editor Brian Leon turned to the Internet when his principal would not let him put a story about a teacher’s arrest record in the student paper. The move still got him suspended from the staff.

Leto High School Principal Daniel Bonilla threatened censorship of the story, which Leon was working on for the Sept. 12 edition, so he posted it on his personal Web site instead. After Leon ran an advertisement for the site in the student paper, the Legend, Bonilla suspended him from his duties as editor for what he called “poor judgment.” The episode is the latest development in an already troubled relationship between the student and principal.

In his article entitled “Who’s Teaching You,” Leon wrote about an unnamed special education teacher who was arrested in 1999 for battery and domestic assault. Leon raised concerns about whether the school board should notify students about teachers’ criminal records. The story quoted students who were concerned about not knowing such information as well as one who said she believes “it’s their business and not ours.” Leon provided links to the Hillsborough County sheriff’s office and clerk’s office, where arrest inquiries are handled and open records are filed.

After being interviewed by Leon, the teacher complained to Bonilla that Leon had led him to believe the interview was for a profile. Bonilla called Leon into his office the next day.

“He made it known that I should not try to publish the story in the paper,” said Leon. “He thought it was bad press for [the school].”

In the school district’s estimation, the interview was unethical, said Mark Hart, spokesman for the School District of Hillsborough County. “While we recognize the ‘ambush interview’ style is a part of modern journalism, it is inconsistent with the journalism curriculum that Leto High School wants to teach. The subject of the interview should have been appraised as to what the interview would be about.”

Leon’s suspension from the paper was not a response to the story, but rather for his “judgment” regarding the ad he ran in the paper, according to Hart.

The ad, Leon said, consisted of a blank box that read “censored due to unenlightened educators,” and provided the address for his Web site, The Voice, a forum he created for Leto High School-related stories and opinions that are “free from censorship.” Hart said that Leon chose not to pay for the ad, but to compensate the Legend through “in-kind services.” The Legend owed him $14.53 for supplies that he had purchased, so Leon directed the money he was owed toward the advertisement.

According to Hart, Bonilla thought this was exceeding Leon’s role as editor of the newspaper. It was for that reason, said Hart, that Leon was punished. Hart called the story and the ad “two separate issues.

This is not the first time that Leon and the Legend have faced censorship issues with Bonilla. In October of 2001, Leon wrote an editorial that was critical of a chemistry teacher who offered to raise students’ grades in return for their contributing to an American Red Cross fund for Sept. 11 victims. In the editorial, Leon questioned whether such a policy was in the best interest of students. Bonilla said the piece was inaccurate and threatened Leon with suspension if it was published.

Leon, Bonilla, and Legend adviser Concepcion Ledezma were to meet today to discuss new editorial guidelines for the student newspaper at Leto. Leon said he fears that Bonilla will look to establish prior review of each issue of the paper before it is published. Bonilla said the meeting will simply outline some “housecleaning that is needed.”

Read about previous dispute.