South Carolina middle school paper withheld for publishing political ads

A schoolsuperintendent held up distribution of a South Carolina middle school newspaper,citing a district policy that prohibits printing commercial, political orreligious advertisements in school newspapers.

The first issue of TheChief’s Chronicle, the new student newspaper at Gaffney Middle School,contained three political advertisements purchased by candidates in the upcomingCherokee County school board elections. A fourth ad was purchased by a schoolprincipal wishing students “good luck,” according to Cody Sossamon, executiveeditor of The Gaffney Ledger, the local paper that prints TheChief’s Chronicle.

Superintendent Bill James blockeddistribution of the Oct. 18 edition when he was told it contained political ads.He cited a district policy that states that “schools will not display ordistribute advertising materials of a commercial, political or religious naturein the schools or on school grounds.”

James also expressed a concernabout the school district appearing to support particular candidates overothers. Five candidates did not place ads in the paper.

Adviser JudyOlson-Robinson said she was not aware of the policy when she encouraged studentsto sell ads to defray printing costs.

“Nobody ever really said whatboard policy was,” said Olson-Robinson. “I’m still not exactly sure what[it] is.”

Although the district advertising policy has been in placesince 1994, both district high schools have traditionally printed ads in theirstudent papers without any problems, according to Sossamon. Besides TheChief’s Chronicle, The Gaffney Ledger also prints the studentpapers at the two high schools in the Cherokee County district, hesaid.

Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina PressAssociation, said in the same Oct. 23 Gaffney Ledger article that thestudents should have been praised for selling political ads in the studentnewspaper.

“What better way to teach the political process and encouragecivic involvement than to have a political ad in a student newspaper,” Rogerssaid.

Rogers also noted that by running a paid ad, the newspaper was notendorsing a candidate.

Superintendent James said that because the policyis vague, it probably should be “reviewed and refined.”

AdviserOlson-Robinson said that she expected the re-printed issue, without the ads, tobe reviewed and released by Gaffney Principal Herman Thompson soon.

SPLCVIEW: We continue to receive occasional reports of student media — both atthe high school and college level — being prohibited by school officialsfrom publishing ads or editorial endorsements of political candidates or issues.As long as students alone are in charge of deciding whether and what toadvertise or endorse, we are convinced that no laws are broken in allowing theirpublication. While the weakened First Amendment protections available to somehigh school student media may make for an uphill legal battle in challengingsuch administrative action, we urge students not to back down without a fight.For public college students, the law is much clearer: political ads andeditorial endorsements will almost always be protected. Political expressionresides at the very core of what the First Amendment was designed to protect andadministrative attempts to curb such speech should be fought tooth and nail. TheSPLC stands ready to assist any student media organization that wishes tochallenge the enforcement of such provisions.