Ohio school officials confiscate newspaper, claim libel and privacy violation

OHIO — A group of students at Wooster High School weredetermined to report on how school officials were punishing students fordrinking.They were denied that right although a district policy protectsstudent press freedom.The Wooster Blade story described how theschool board overruled administrators and withdrew the punishment of sixstudents who were caught drinking alcohol at a house party attended by 50 to 100of their classmates, said Op/Ed Editor Vasanth Ananth.Following aninvestigation into the Nov. 7 party, assistant principals at the high schoolrecommended the six students, all athletes, to be suspended from one-fourth of asports season in accordance to an athletic department policy prohibitingconsumption of alcohol during the school year, according to the Bladestory. The punishments were appealed by parents but upheld by Principal JimJackson and Wooster City School District Superintendent David Estrop, wrote thestudent paper. The school board then overturned the decision during a Decembermeeting and instead ordered the students to do 10 hours of community service,reported the Blade article.The story also included a comment bythe daughter of a school board member in which she admitted to a Bladereporter that she drank at the party, said Ananth.”This is obviouslysomething the community should know about,” said Ananth. “These kids’punishments are being overturned at the whim of political figures that arereally not following set guidelines for punishing kids.”School officialsdisagreed. A Blade staff member witnessed Jackson and one of hisassistant principals confiscating all 4,500 copies of the biweeklystudent-produced newspaper from its office on Dec. 19, the night before theywere to be distributed at school. Estrop said the Blade was takenon the advice of lawyers who said the publication had inaccuracies and waspotentially libelous.At least two students said they were misquoted withstatements that “attributed to them acts of misconduct and potentially acts ofcriminal behavior,” Estrop told The Associated Press on Dec. 21.District policy restricts school officials from censoring the newspaperunless material falls within a specified category of unprotectedspeech.According to the Student Publication Rights bylaw in the districtpolicy, “an unfettered student press is essential.” It also says, “Studentjournalists [are] afforded with protection against prior review and censorship.”According to the policy, such freedoms, however, do not extend to material thatis obscene, materially disruptive or defamatory, which includes slander andlibel.Ananth said the Blade did not libel anyone.”[Administrators] have not found any evidentiary support that [thestudent’s statements were] libelous. They just think it is libelous,” Ananthsaid. And he questioned what authority allowed school officials to review andexercise restraint of the papers before they were distributed. Thoughthe newspaper is created in a class, Ananth said it is funded throughadvertising. He also said Blade adviser Kristi Hiner was aware of thearticle and supported the students’ right to publish it. She was away forpersonal reasons during the confiscation.Jackson told the AP that thenewspapers were confiscated after a teacher told him about a possibleconfidentiality problem with the article.Jackson said federal lawforbids naming students who face disciplinary action without parents’permission, and at least one student reported having been misquoted. Violatingprivacy rights could leave the school open to lawsuits, he told the AP.AWooster High School official said a district maintenance manager disposed of theBlade sometime during Dec. 20-21. She said the school board met thismorning for an executive session, but she did not know whether thenewspaper confiscation was discussed. No school board member could bereached for comment and Jackson and Estrop did not return repeated phonemessages left over several days.