Student journalists sue N.Y high school to end censorship of student newspaper

NEW YORK — The graduating staff of The Tattler, Ithaca High School’s student newspaper, filed a lawsuit against the Ithaca City School District on June 10 to end its censorship of the paper.

The students filed the suit in federal court after “exhausting” other options to remove guidelines that allow censorship of the paper by Ithaca High administrators, Tattler Editor in Chief Robert Ochshorn said.

“I would like to see The Tattler remain a forum for student expression rather than a public relations tool for the district,” Ochshorn explained.

The students’ dispute with the district began during the fall of 2004, when officials censored surveys in which The Tattler asked students to rate the performance of the faculty and administration of the school.

In January 2005, Principal Joe Wilson imposed guidelines on the newspaper in response to a restaurant review that some community members found to be “racist” and “sexist.”

The guidelines say the paper’s adviser “shall read, edit and approve all articles prior to publication” and “has the right to change, edit, or remove content that would substantially interfere with the District’s work or impinge upon the rights of other students; or is inconsistent with the legitimate pedagogical concerns of the District.”

The “pedagogical concerns” include “content that is ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, inaccurate, libelous, biased or prejudiced, unethical, vulgar or profane, or is not suitable for immature audiences,” as is stated in the decision of the Supreme Court case Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier.

The students’ lawyer, Ray Schlather, said these guidelines are intolerable for a newspaper that previously published free of any policies or guidelines.

“It was about as close to being a free and independent newspaper as you could have in a high school setting,” Schlather explained. ” All of a sudden these new policies were imposed by this principal which constitute a high degree of prior restraint, which is offensive to the First Amendment.”

When the February issue reached then-adviser Stephanie Vinch, she removed a cartoon showing stick figures posing in various sexual positions that accompanied a story about the school’s sex education curriculum. The issue ran with a blank space where the cartoon had been.

Vinch resigned from the post in February, forcing the staff to publish the paper without the name The Tattler because, under Wilson’s guidelines, the students could not publish the paper without an adviser. But the staff continued independently, using their own money to publish a paper for three months.

The March issue included the censored cartoon in an article that attempted to examine why the issue became so heated.

When the students tried to distribute the paper at school, the administration prevented them from doing so, Schlather said.

The paper printed as The Tattler again in June when a new adviser, Roselyn Teukolsky, began working with the staff.

Although no efforts of censorship arose with the June issue, Schlather said the case is no less important.

“We have a dedicated group of editors who are determined to stand on principle and are determined to see this case through even after they leave the high school,” Schlather said. “The case will remain viable because the principles that are underlying the case are significant and they certainly don’t end with graduation.

“We believe that if our young people do not understand the rights and importance of a free press early on, then [they] will never be concerned [with a free press],” he continued.

Superintendent Judy Pastel declined to comment Tuesday.

Ochshorn and the other seniors at The Tattler graduate June 23. Ochshorn said the remaining staff members also feel strongly about the importance of winning the case even though they are not a part of the suit.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Syracuse.

–By Mike Hart

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