Budget endorsement in student newspaper did not violate school district bylaws

NEW YORK — Claims that a high school newspaper violated school district bylaws by promoting the school district’s proposed budget in a news story were dismissed by the New York education commissioner in early May, but student journalists at John Jay High School now must submit their previously uncensored newspaper to prior review.

Dione Goldin of Hopewell Junction, N.Y., filed a petition with the N.Y. State Education Department against Wappingers School District in July 2003. Goldin alleged that the high school student newspaper, the Patriot, could not promote the district’s budget and subsequent budget vote through news or editorial content because the district partially funds the student newspaper.

The front-page story in question mentioned proposed budget figures and ended with the sentence, “Even though the planned budget is not what everyone had hoped for, everyone should get out there and vote for it because if it is shot down, we will have even less money than what has been planned for.”

Though the district issued a statement denying any attempt to control or influence the newspaper content at the high school, a policy of prior review was implemented while Goldin’s petition was being resolved. The budget vote was scheduled for June 3, 2003. The Patriot issue in question was published in May 2003.

Commissioner Richard Mills dismissed on multiple grounds Goldin’s petition, which was also filed against the board of education, newspaper adviser John Ditton, the district superintendent and district faculty members. The commissioner cited procedural errors in the petition’s filing as well as Goldin’s failure to meet a 30-day deadline for filing. The petition was filed July 1, 2003.

The Patriot, which had only been printing for 18 months at the time Goldin’s petition was filed, had no previous practice of prior review. Now, Patriot adviser John Ditton said the relationship between the newspaper and the school is one of “mutual respect,” even though the principal could choose to censor articles.

In August 2003, Ditton told the Student Press Law Center that he probably should have suggested students place the article on the opinion page because of its editorial content.

“Kids at the high school level have a difficult time separating their opinion from fact,” he said. “That opinion keeps sneaking into factual accounts of things.”

Although he would prefer no prior review at all, Ditton said the district realizes it can only attempt to censor content that would otherwise be impermissible anyway, such as material that is obscene, libelous, or that which incites immediate danger or disruption to the education process.

“In reality, if I have to have any kind of prior review, this is the ideal one because if we were to do any of those things in the first place it would be foolish,” he said. A final edition of the newspaper is submitted to Principal Paul Tobin 48 hours in advance of printing.

The Patriot printed all of last year’s issues and the first of seven issues this school year without incident, Ditton said, including an article critical of fire drill policies at the school. Student editors understand their responsibilities and limitations and also their ethical obligations, he said, and there are no hard feelings between the newspaper and the administration.

Tobin agreed that publication of the newspaper has been going well.

“As bad as it sounded initially, I think it came out pretty well in the end,” Ditton said.

The Patriot’s second issue of the current school year is due out in October.

See previous coverage
N.Y. department of education to rule if student paper was wrong to promote budget>News Flash, 8/7/2003