N.Y. department of education to rule if student paper was wrong to promote budget

NEW YORK — Administrators at John Jay High School arerequiring prior approval of student newspaper content since a front-page articlein May landed the school district in litigation.A community member fileda petition with the New York State Education Department against the WappingersCentral School District, claiming that the Patriot should not havewritten a story that promoted the school district budget. In her complaint,Dione Goldin said by doing so, the school district violated rulings made bystate education officials that prohibit the use of district funds or facilitiesto promote the budget. Goldin is arguing that because the Patriotreceives school funding, it had no right to express an opinion about the budget.The school district contends that administrators did not attempt toinfluence the content of the article, which was written by the students,therefore, the published material is not unlawful. In the mean time,school officials have implemented a little-known policy that allows them toprior review the Patriot.Members of the Patriot staffargue that prior review will infringe upon their rights as a “forum forstudent expression” and have proposed a new publications policy to theboard for review. The school board has not yet voted on the proposedpolicy.The article in question reported about the recent cuts in statefunding. The fact-based piece ended with an unattributed comment that read,“Even though the planned budget is not what everyone had hoped for,everyone should get out there and vote for it.” In her petitionfiled July 1, Goldin said the “blatantly partisan” article includedinaccuracies, as well as grammatical, punctuation and spelling errors. Sheargued that if the faculty adviser to the student newspaper read the article,and let it run as is, he is “unqualified” to serve as adviser. Shesaid the adviser should have told the reporter to do more research and correcterrors.Patriot adviser John Ditton said he should have suggestedto the students that the article belonged on the opinion page because iteditorialized.“Kids at the high school level have a difficult timeseparating their opinion from fact, said Ditton, who has been teaching at JohnJay for 34 years. “That opinion keeps sneaking into factual accounts ofthings.”The Commissioner of Education, who will be ruling on thecomplaint, has stated in the past that a student newspaper funded by thedistrict may editorialize in favor of a proposed school budget or a specificschool board candidate, as long as the school district did not request thecontent of the published material. The school district cited theCommissioner’s previous ruling in its response to Goldin’s complaint.John Donoghue, an attorney representing the school district, said hedoes not expect a decision to be handed down by the Commissioner until sometimenext spring. Jonathan Burman, spokesperson for the New York Departmentof Education, said he could not comment on the impact of theCommissioner’s decision because the petition is pending.When thecontroversy surfaced, now former Principal Joseph Mangiaracina wrote a two-pagememorandum to Superintendent Richard Powell that states the Patriot was“designed to be a formal mechanism for student expression.” Sincethen, the district has implemented prior review of the Patriot, leavingthe designation of the student paper unclear.Under a 1994 policy onschool-sponsored publications, the principal is responsible for overseeingpublications. Student editors said they were not made aware of the policy untila few weeks ago while in a meeting with Paul Tobin, new principal for the2003-2004 school year.Under the new guidelines, Ditton said his role asadviser will become more precarious. In the past, Ditton has advised thestudents on the paper’s production and journalistic issues. He saidaccording to this policy he would act as a censor and read every word in thepaper.Students at John Jay High School have been attending school boardmeetings to plead for support of the rights of the student press. FormerPatriot Editor in Chief Ashwin Kaja said he has spearheaded efforts toeducate board members on the role of the publication as a “forum forstudent expression.”Kaja said the award-winning Patriot isnot a school-sponsored publication and should not be subject to prior review.Under the 1988 Supreme Court decision, Hazelwood School District v.Kuhlmeier, school administrators are given wider latitude to reviewschool-sponsored publications. The students have drafted a newpublications policy, modeled after the guidelines created by the Student PressLaw Center, which said the Patriot staff has the right to determine thecontent of student media, the adviser is not the censor and prior restraint isnot permissible.The 18-month-old newspaper has never been censored,according to Ditton. During the year, as the paper went to press, studentsplaced a copy on the desk of Mangiaracina before distribution as a professionalcourtesy.Kaja said that Mangiaracina, who resigned in June, had beenbehind the students 100 percent. Kaja, who will be attending HarvardUniversity in the fall, said he has continued to be involved in the debate withthe Patriot because he fears the district will make rash decisions in thesummer without students’ consent.“I am concerned becausethis is how student press dies at my high school,” he said. “Wefinally have a newspaper and so much student interest, having prior review wouldbe quite a shame.”