Ohio administrators confiscate high school newspaper, claim libel and privacy invasion

School officials in Wooster,Ohio, confiscated approximately 4,500 copies of the Wooster High School studentnewspaper Dec. 19 after they learned that the paper contained a story in which aschool board member’s daughter told a student reporter that she had consumedalcohol at an off-campus party.

The Wooster Blade story reportedthat the school board overruled administrators and withdrew the punishment ofsix students, including the school board member’s daughter, who, Bladereporters said, were caught drinking alcohol at a house party attended by 50 to100 of their classmates.

According to the Blade story, followingan investigation into the Nov. 7 party, assistant principals at the high schoolrecommended that the six students, all athletes, be suspended from one-fourth ofa sports season in accordance with an athletic department policy prohibitingconsumption of alcohol during the school year. The punishments were appealed byparents but upheld by Principal Jim Jackson and Wooster City School DistrictSuperintendent David Estrop. The school board then overturned the decisionduring a December meeting and instead ordered the students to do 10 hours ofcommunity service, the student paper reported.

“This is obviouslysomething the community should know about,” said Blade Op/Ed editorVasanth Ananth. “These kids’ punishments are being overturned at the whim ofpolitical figures that are really not following set guidelines for punishingkids.”

School officials disagreed. A Blade staff member witnessedJackson and one of his assistant principals confiscating all 4,500 copies of thebiweekly student-produced newspaper from its office on Dec. 19, the night beforethey were to be distributed at school.

Estrop told the Associated Presson Dec. 21 that the Blade was taken on the advice of lawyers who said thepublication had inaccuracies and was potentially libelous.

At least twostudents said they were misquoted with statements that “attributed to them actsof misconduct and potentially acts of criminal behavior,” Estrop told the AP.

District policy restricts school officials from censoring the newspaperunless material falls within a specified category of unprotectedspeech.

According to the district policy, “an unfettered student press isessential.” It also says, “Student journalists [are] afforded with protectionagainst prior review and censorship.” According to the policy, such freedoms,however, do not extend to material that is obscene, materially disruptive ordefamatory, which includes slander and libel.

Ananth said the Bladedid not libel anyone.

“[Administrators] have not found anyevidentiary support that [the student’s statements were] libelous. They justthink it is libelous,” Ananth said. And he questioned what authority allowedschool officials to review and exercise restraint of the papers before they weredistributed.

Jackson told the AP that the newspapers were confiscatedafter a teacher told him about a possible confidentiality problem with thearticle.

Jackson said federal law forbids naming students who facedisciplinary action without parents’ permission, and at least one studentreported having been misquoted. Violating privacy rights could leave the schoolopen to lawsuits, he told the AP.

In a released statement, the WoosterSchool Board said that information in the Blade story regarding student drinkingand administrative punishment was “entirely untrue and factually inaccurate.” The statement also said that the newspaper was confiscated “solely on theinitiative of the Administration and without any input or request from any Boardmember. “

No school board member could be reached for comment and Jacksonand Estrop did not return repeated phone messages left over severaldays.

SPLC View: Student reporters at Wooster are standing by theirstory. Assuming that the students were accurately quoted and that theinformation reported in the story is true — and we’ve seen nothing toindicate that it’s not — this is simply another case of administratorsabusing their authority to control “bad” news that they’d rather not havereported. School officials seem to be digging around trying to find some legalexcuse to justify what looks to be little more than blatant censorship. Contraryto the claim of school officials, federal law (presumably they are referring tothe Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, also known as FERPA) does notprohibit a student-edited newspaper from reporting information that studentreporters have discovered on their own about students facing disciplinaryaction.