School district pulls ads from basketball program for being ‘religious,’ ‘political’

MISSOURI — After school district officials pulled two advertisements from a high school basketball program for violating a district policy prohibiting religious, philosophical and political advertisements in school publications, the student newspaper staff members who produced the program are preparing to challenge the school district for a second time.

In late November, staff members of The Prowl, the monthly student newspaper at Oakville High School in St. Louis, were making final changes to the program for the season’s first home basketball game. On the eve of their deadline, the head basketball coach requested a copy to show Mehlville School District representatives, said newspaper faculty adviser Mitch Eden. School district Community Relations Director Patrick Wallace pulled the advertisements the next day.

“Our policy allows ads but does not create a public forum,” Wallace said. “[The students’] arguments were that because they sold the ads they did not have to apply the policy, which isn’t the case.”

The first advertisement featured contact information for Twin Rivers Worship Center. The second, purchased by a resident of Oakville, quoted portions of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery after the Civil War. The resident aimed to “promote equal rights” with the advertisement, Eden said.

“It would have been fine had the ad just quoted the amendment, but it also said ‘Think about it’ at the bottom,” Eden said. “[School district representatives] said that was the mantra of Michael Moore in his book ‘Stupid White Men.’ They said because it was from a specific person to a specific audience asking them to do something, it was unacceptable.”

Michael Moore published “Stupid White Men…and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation” in 2001, criticizing Pres. George W. Bush’s first term in office.

Wallace, however, said he learned of the possible Michael Moore connection after he made the decision to pull the advertisement and would not say whether removing the final sentence of the advertisement would have changed his decision.

“I’ve heard it relates to Michael Moore, which I’m not familiar with,” he said. “That’s not why I made the decision. I did not relate that to Michael Moore. Our policy says an ad cannot be political in nature and I felt it was putting somebody’s political statement forward.”

The pulled advertisements cost The Prowl staff $50. Proceeds from the basketball program went to a school activity fund.

On Dec. 10, newspaper staff members submitted a letter to the school board asserting their rights to publish advertisements at their discretion. Ian Darnell, opinion editor for The Prowl, represented his colleagues at the Dec. 15 school board meeting.

“We were very, very upset [about the policy],” Darnell said. “It was a financial danger because we lost the revenue on the ads and a lot of hard work went into selling the ads. We felt afraid and a little cheated by the administration for spitting in the face of student press rights.”

The students cited Rosenberger v. Rectors of the University of Virginia, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the university practiced unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination when it denied funding to a student publisher of a Christian newspaper.

A January meeting between Wallace, Eden, the school district superintendent and the school district’s legal counsel did not result in a policy change–only an offer to discuss the matter with The Prowl staff, which the students have not accepted.

Meanwhile, Eden said, his students are formulating new questions and arguments for the school district. Darnell said he hopes to see the issue resolved before the end of the semester.

–By Kate Campbell