Censorship of sex article overturned after students fight decision

NEW JERSEY – Student journalists at one school won a fight over censorship of a sex story, but the victory may prove temporary.

The Caldwell-West Caldwell School Board in Newark, N.J. agreed to allow the publication of a previously censored article in The Caldron, James Caldwell High School’s student newspaper. But board members are considering stricter policies that could allow for greater censorship in the future.

"It was great because it was evident that students could fight unjust policies and succeed," Andrew Mangino, the former Caldron editor who led the fight against the school board, said of the decision. "I hope that it will be an inspiration for other students to oppose unjust censorship."

Mangino, now a student at Yale University, said the article "Let’s Talk About Sex" was pulled from the paper’s April issue after Caldwell principal Kevin Barnes deemed it inappropriate. Barnes also forbade any mention of the article and surrounding events in any future issue of The Caldron. The article discussed national sexual trends and studies and compared them to Caldwell High. Many of the issues are the same as those addressed in the school’s sex education curriculum.

The Caldron’s efforts to appeal to the superintendent and school board were rejected.

"Both the school board and superintendent denied a) our right to appeal and b) our appeals in effect. We especially were not given a chance with the board," Mangino said in an e-mail.

The students contacted the Student Press Law Center, who, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, referred them to Bennet Zurofsky, a cooperating attorney with the ACLU. Zurofsky sent a letter detailing The Caldron’s case to Frank Pomaco, attorney for the Caldwell-West Caldwell School Board. Neither Barnes nor Superintendent Daniel Gerardi had any legal right to censor "Let’s Talk About Sex" because the school board had no policy in place that addressed the issue, according to Zurofsky’s letter.

"Here, the Board of Education does not even have a vaguely defined policy," Zurofsky wrote. "In his April 1 letter, Dr. Gerardi stated that there was no published School Board policy that applied to this censorship question. While denying that he even had the power to review Dr. Barnes’ decision in the matter, Dr. Gerardi went on to state that he agreed with it because the article ‘has no place in a school-sponsored newspaper’ and is ‘antithetical to the School District’s Mission Statement and Desired Learning Outcomes.’ Vaguer, more undefined standards for censorship would be hard to imagine."

Zurofsky’s letter made clear that his clients would pursue legal action if the issue could not be resolved. He said that once the school board realized they had no legal grounds for censorship and would likely be unsuccessful in court due to The Caldron’s strong case, they were inclined to settle.

The school board and the students came to an agreement that will allow "Let’s Talk About Sex" and its sidebar to be published in the upcoming issue of The Caldron.

The agreement states that there will be no censorship of The Caldron until the Caldwell-West Caldwell Board of Education lawfully implements censorship standards in accordance with the law as written in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District. In that case, the Supreme Court recognized that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of expression at the schoolhouse gate." The Court said that students were allowed to express themselves freely unless their actions caused a "material and substantial disruption" of normal school operations or an invasion of the rights of other students.

Other points of the agreement included some minor changes in the language, but not content, of "Let’s Talk About Sex" and its sidebar and a disclaimer stating that the views in the article do not reflect those of the administration or school board, among others.

Zurofsky and Mangino said their biggest worry now is that the Caldwell-West Caldwell School Board will move to implement stricter censorship guidelines for The Caldron.

"It certainly is a good sign that the school districts are willing to recognize the law," Zurofsky said of the agreement. But "there are certainly indications that the board is interested in passing stricter standards."

While Superintendent Gerardi failed to return messages from the SPLC asking for comment, Newark’s The Star-Ledger reported last week that Mary Davidson, president of the school board, said the board will consider creating a new policy to govern student publications.

After the victory, Mangino said, "It would be a shame if they did."

by Clay Gaynor, SPLC staff writer