Prior review a 'straight jacket,' adviser says

MASSACHUSETTS — The Witches Brew, the student newspaper at Salem High School, stirred up trouble in December when it attempted to publish editorials on low student morale and new school policies preventing students from wearing hats and eating in class. 

The editorials drew the ire of Principal Ann Papagiotas, who ordered the newspaper’s publication date delayed until students changed the editorials to show the school in a more positive light. After the paper was finally published, adviser Pamela Hebert resigned from her advising duties because she was afraid of losing her teaching job.

Now the school is crafting a student publications policy that would require students to submit the newspaper to the principal for review prior to publication.

 If the prior review policy is implemented, administrators who want to control the student newspaper will be emboldened, said Harry Proudfoot, a Massachusetts high school newspaper adviser and an expert on the state’s student free expression law. 

Student journalists at public schools in Massachusetts enjoy greater press freedoms than students in most other states. Under the law, a high school administrator can censor a student publication only if he or she reasonably believes the publication would lead to a substantial disruption of the school. 

Proudfoot said that in light of the student free expression law, the proposed prior review policy puts student publications in “straight jackets.” 

“It requires a considerable level of doublethink to make [prior review] fit the intent of the [students free expression law] or the Tinker decision,” Proudfoot said, referring to the Supreme Court’s 1969 ruling that “students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” “I’m at a loss for words that aren’t slanderous.” 

Limiting student expression “puts administrators in the dark about what’s really going on in their school,” Proudfoot said. 

“If you give kids the right to investigate things, they will tell you through the articles where the real problems in their schools are. Not addressing [controversy] because you didn’t let the story get out undermines what we’re trying to do in schools. You’re not going to improve kids’ lives by ignoring their problems.” 

The school is rewriting its publications policy because of the concerns raised by students about the delayed publication of the Witches Brew, said James Gilbert, the school district’s lawyer. He said prior review is necessary for administrators to determine whether the newspaper’s publication would lead to a disruption of the school. He said prior review is allowed under the student free expression law.

“The statue provides for prior review in order to determine disruption,” Gilbert said. “These are trained and talented school administrators who believe strongly in free expression. [Administrators are] not looking for ways to prevent student expression.”

Student journalists said that prior review would hinder student expression.  

Witches Brew co-editor Stacey Gagnon said she has noticed that student journalists shy away from topics they think will upset the administration.  

“If [students] wanted to voice their opinion, [the paper is] their slot to do it,” Gagnon said. “It’s a shame for them because they’re not able to express themselves, and they’re not trying because they don’t want to get in trouble.”

 Superintendent Herb Levine said he would not comment on the newspaper because “as far as we’re concerned, that issue is over with and resolved.”

However, if prior review is implemented, students said they might pursue legal action to secure their free press rights. 

“If they still don’t want to take prior review out, there might not be a choice [but to seek legal action], because that’s what we’re fighting for, and that’s the one thing [the principal] doesn’t want to give us,” Gagnon said.