ILLINOIS — A high school student’s column that criticized her vice principal for censoring an article in the student newspaper and firing the paper’s adviser was pulled by the vice principal the day the paper was scheduled to be printed.
Katie Drews’ column in the Sept. 30 edition of the Glenbard North High School North Current protested vice principal Lisa Biel’s decision to censor a story about masturbation in January 2004. The column also criticized the school for not renewing the contract of the paper’s award-winning adviser, Peter Giaquinta, after he declined to submit “controversial” story ideas for administrative approval.
According to Giaquinta, in January a North Current reporter wanted to write a story about masturbation, after the topic had appeared in popular movies and a song by Britney Spears. The reporter planned to explain how the topic is dealt with in the high school curriculum, Giaquinta said.
But after the reporter e-mailed a health teacher to request an interview, Biel told the student she was not allowed to report or write the story, Giaquinta said.
“She believed the topic was beyond the pale,” Giaquinta said. “I arranged a meeting between [Biel] and the student so [Biel] could see that the story wasn’t a lewd piece and it wasn’t a joke and it wasn’t of the nature to be shameful.”
The reporter had also made calls to officials at the Kinsey Institute and sociology professors at the University of Illinois – Chicago to get information for the story, Giaquinta said.
“[The story] wasn’t going to be written just to spark trouble or anything, because that’s just not the type of paper that we are,” North Current Editor in Chief Katie Drews said. “I know it would have been a very informative story, but they didn’t allow her to even write it.”
Giaquinta said the student sent Biel several letters protesting her decision, saying the administration’s decision did not fall under standards established by Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, a Supreme Court decision that gives high school administrators the authority to censor stories when they have a reasonable educational justification for doing so.
After those letters were sent, Giaquinta said Biel ordered him to “never let the story see the light of day.”
“We thought it was not an acceptable topic for a tax-supported student newspaper,” Biel told the Chicago Sun-Times. Biel did not return several calls by the Report for comment.
As a result of the controversy, Giaquinta said he was told to give administrators a “heads up” in the future if the paper planned to publish any stories that might be deemed controversial.
“Their concept of a heads up was to let them know in the reporting stages what the students were going to be writing on, and that troubled me,” Giaquinta said. “It seemed to be far more than a heads up; it seemed to me to be going to them for permission.”
The request was problematic and unrealistic, Giaquinta said.
“I couldn’t really agree to doing that the way that they wanted me to, especially because when asked they were unable to provide me with a list of guidelines or a set of criteria for what they believed was controversial.”
Shortly after the administration made its request, Giaquinta said, the North Current published a story in its May issue that explored the tradition of local teenagers going to strip clubs on their 18th birthdays.
“It was a feature story looking at this new rite of passage, something that last year was a pretty commonplace activity for a lot of students,” Giaquinta said. “The story itself was not vulgar, it wasn’t lewd. It identified something that 18-year-old students were doing, which was legal and strange and interesting.”
Giaquinta said the administration told him the story was exactly the type he was expected to run past administrators. On the last day of final exams in May, Giaquinta was told his contract as the newspaper’s adviser would not be renewed. Giaquinta remains at the high school, teaching English, newspaper production and journalism writing classes.
When the new school year began this fall, Drews wrote an opinion column about the previous year’s events.
“I wrote about how we have such a great newspaper, and it didn’t make sense to fire him and give us new advisers,” Drews said. “[The decision had] negative effects on not just the newspaper but the entire student body.”
Biel said the opinion column, which mentioned Giaquinta by name, could not run because of personnel issues and other factual innacuracies, Drews said. Even after those changes were made, Drews said Biel cut the column on the day the paper was scheduled to be printed. Instead of the column, the North Current ran a blank page with the line, “Lisa Biel censored this article.”
On the day the paper was distributed to students, Drews passed out photocopies of her censored column to Glenbard North students.
“They deserved to know what happened,” she said.
Drews said her main regret is that the award-winning North Current has lost its award-winning adviser. The paper won awards from four scholastic journalism associations last year, and on Oct. 15 Giaquinta was named adviser of the year by the Kettle Moraine Press Association.
Since Drews’ column was censored, the North Current published its October issue. Inside, the staff printed a biography of Joseph Stalin, with a photo illustration of the dictator wearing a Glenbard North jersey. The caption read, “Even Stalin eventually lost his power.”
“I think the point got across that we’re serious about it,” Drews said. “I have a feeling they won’t be censoring us anymore.”