Wisc. student journalists create independent publication to counter official’s censorship

WISCONSIN The editor in chief of Monona Grove High School’s student newspaper, the Eagle Post, thought the principal’s review of articles before they were published violated students’ First Amendment rights–so she and another student created an alternative newspaper, The Veridicus Times.

Now, Principal Paul Brost is threatening disciplinary action against the students for refusing to submit copies of the alternative newspaper for his review before they are distributed.

The Veridicus Times, produced by Eagle Post Editor in Chief Julia Steege and staff member Thy Vo, was intended to present “real issues” by publishing controversial articles, including those the students claim were censored by Brost, according to the newspaper’s mission statement.

“Quite a few insightful articles that students have written for the Eagle Post have been censored or changed by the administration,” the statement reads. “We sincerely believe that we learn best when encouraged to express and consider viewpoints even if these viewpoints are controversial.”

“[Brost said] he doesn’t think hot-button [and] controversial topics will add anything to the learning environment, and doesn’t think the freshmen and sophomores are mature enough to handle [certain topics], especially those dealing with sex,” Steege said. “Pretty much anything that is controversial has been either [taken] out or made to be re-written in a very, very uninteresting, non-informative way.”

According to Steege, Brost did not allow an editorial by Vo, “Homosexual Rights: Dispelling the Indoctrination of Our Society” to be published because he said it could “alienate some students.” Vo’s editorial included quotations from gay students, statistics about hate crimes and scientific studies on homosexuality. Steege said Brost had also censored other articles, including one about marijuana and one about sex education.

Brost declined to comment, referring calls to newspaper adviser and journalism teacher Kelly Sullivan.

Sullivan said that since 2001, the Eagle Post editor in chief has been meeting with the Monona Grove High School principal to discuss article ideas for upcoming issues of the newspaper. Brost also indirectly served as newspaper adviser from October 2004 through April 2005 while Sullivan was on maternity leave. Sullivan said Brost “only asked to see some stories,” and never told students not to write certain articles. Instead, Brost told students to take different approaches with articles, and asked that two quotes be removed from a student’s article on sex education, according to Sullivan.

“Since the principal is considered the publisher, I felt it was appropriate for [Brost] to have an idea about what to expect from each issue,” Sullivan said. “I think students need to learn about responsible journalism and using their First Amendment rights appropriately and responsibly.”

Sullivan said she asked Steege to show Brost copies of the articles she and Vo planned to publish in the alternative newspaper to discuss why they could not be run in the school-sponsored student newspaper, but Julia refused.

“The entire censorship issue could have been avoided if the students involved with the alternative newspaper were willing to work with the principal,” Sullivan said.

Maury Smith, a teacher at the school who is mentoring Steege and Vo, said he agrees with Brost’s censorship because it takes place in a school setting.

“The school is a tightly controlled institution where student rights pretty much vanish at the door,” Smith said. “A school newspaper is not public speech any more than classroom conversation is public speech. This is the principal’s paper–not the students’ paper–and he has every right to decide what goes into it.”

A 1969 Supreme Court ruling, Tinker v. Des Moines, reads “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” In 1988 the Supreme Court ruled in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier that administrators can censor some school-sponsored publications when they can show it is related to “legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

On March 18, Steege and Vo submitted a written request to Brost and Monona Grove School District superintendent Gary Schumacher, asking to distribute their alternative newspaper on campus. The students wrote the letter with the aid of a media law attorney and told Brost that district policy required him to respond to their distribution request within seven days.

Brost approved the distribution of the alternative newspaper in a written letter on April 7. Brost also told the students to submit each issue to him seven days prior to its distribution, so he could review it to ensure it did not violate any of the board policy restrictions.

Board policy prohibits material that is of a political nature, is defaming or slanderous, is distributed for a profit, disrupts the school’s “instructional process or educational mission,” is lewd, lascivious, or obscene to minors, or encourages illegal acts.

The students sent Brost a letter on April 15, stating that their attorney advised them that board policy did not require seven days for Brost’s review.

“A seven day period for ‘each issue’ of The Veridicus Times would impose a system of censorship and prior restraint that, deliberately or not, would prevent us and other students from exercising our First Amendment rights,” the letter stated. “We will, however, continue to provide you with a copy of each issue of The Veridicus Times twenty-four hours in advance of distribution at the high school.”

Soon after, Brost wrote a letter to the school district.

“The students do not wish to work with me and have informed me in writing that they will be giving me 24 hours notice before each edition is to be distributed even though the first issue is 16 pages in length,” Brost wrote. “Because the students will not communicate with me directly, I will inform our legal counsel of the situation and seek advice. [This] could end up in a disciplinary situation as the students are now refusing to follow my interpretation of Board policy.”

The students distributed the first issue of their alternative newspaper on April 18, and plan to give Brost their next edition 24 hours prior to distributing it. The attorney that the students consulted will represent them in court if Brost disciplines them, does not allow the newspaper to be distributed or censors articles in it, Steege said.

Steege said she and Vo, both seniors, are mentoring two sophomores who plan to take over The Veridicus Times in the fall.

–By Britt Hulit