Fla. high school officials trash every copy of censored student newspaper

FLORIDA — As janitors tossed issues of the February edition of the Wave into the trash, the student newspaper staff at Wellington High School in Palm Beach County got the administration’s message loud and clear: Any student caught with a copy would be suspended.

Wellington High Principal Cheryl Alligood informed the Wave staff on Feb. 17 that staff writer Amanda Escamilla’s column about virginity would have to be removed because it was “distracting” and “inappropriate.” The column presented two opposing viewpoints about teen sex. The last line of the column read, “Make sure, when the time comes, you truly want to swipe your v-card, because this purchase is non-refundable.”

Alligood ordered the staff to stuff all 3,000 copies of the paper with four new pages to replace Escamilla’s column.

In protest, members of the Wave staff distributed copies of the original edition mixed with the new. But school officials ordered teachers to confiscate the newspapers, Escamilla said.

“Janitors came in with carts and they piled every newspaper ever printed–last month’s, a year ago’s issues–and garbage bags full of my article and threw them all in the dumpster,” Escamilla said. “I started crying. All our work–they just threw it in the dumpster.”

Since the incident took place, Escamilla said, school officials have instituted a prior review policy at Wellington High School. The March issue of the paper was set to go to press on March 11, but the administration informed the newspaper staff that Alligood needed to inspect the edition first.

“Our whole opinion section got yanked from the paper because Ms. Alligood wasn’t there to look over it, which means we technically are under prior review,” Escamilla said. “The whole opinion section–where all my articles were, where all [Editor in Chief Katherine Freniere’s] articles were, everything that meant something–was yanked. This month’s issue is all prom and ads for prom.”

Nat Harrington, spokesman for the Palm Beach County School District, said he does not think Alligood will review each issue of the Wave before it goes to press.

“Since it’s a student-sponsored publication, the principal has delegated that to an adviser and in the normal course of business, if the adviser feels the need to involve the principal or another member of staff, she likely would do that,” he said. “I don’t think all aspects of the paper would be monitored by the principal. There’s no need for that.”

A representative from Alligood’s office said in February that she was no longer commenting on the situation. Assistant Principal Barb Forgash did not return calls for comment.

Harrington released the district’s official statement about the issue on March 18.

“Mrs. Alligood is accountable and responsible for all curriculum programs, including the journalism class that produces the school newspaper,” according to the statement. “She must make decisions that are in the best interest of the entire student body to maintain an appropriate learning environment. Mrs. Alligood has demonstrated consistently that she supports students’ right to free speech and freedom of the press. Although she applauds Ms. Escamilla for the intent of her message, Mrs. Alligood felt that certain portions of the article could have been disruptive to normal school activity on the campus. The principal’s directions were consistent with the precedent of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier–a case involving nearly identical facts.”

In the 1988 Hazelwood case, high school students filed a lawsuit against their school district, claiming that the school had violated their First Amendment rights after the principal removed articles describing teenage pregnancy and the effects of divorce on students from the student newspaper. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that school officials do not violate students’ First Amendment rights if their efforts to control the content of certain school-sponsored publications “are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

Harrington attributed the removal of Escamilla’s article to “communication problems.”

“It was never the principal’s intent to censor and she didn’t feel she did censor the publication,” he said.

The Palm Beach Post published Escamilla’s column on Feb. 22, and an interview she taped with MSNBC aired Feb. 28. Escamilla is also in talks with MTV to appear on the show “High School Stories: Scandals, Pranks and Controversies,” and plans an interview with Seventeen magazine.

Out2 News, a national online newspaper, hired Escamilla as a student reporter. Her latest column, published March 17, compares the Wellington administration’s actions to censorship in ancient China and Nazi Germany and sarcastically describes the school newspaper as “finally purified.” A digital photograph of piles of the discarded Wave appears on the Web site.

Amidst the publicity and new job, Escamilla has made another important decision–she will forgo a lawsuit.

“At this point, I don’t want to go through nine weeks of school with these teachers,” she said. “Doing legal action would mean subpoenaing my adviser, things that if I didn’t have to go to this school I would do. Legal action means a lot of stress.”

–By Kate Campbell

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