NEW JERSEY — Student newspaper staffers in New Jersey who won a battle over censorship of an article on teen sex proved that knowing their rights under the First Amendment pays off.
In September, 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 the victory may prove temporary, as 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.”
Adam Goldstein, a legal fellow at the Student Press Law Center, said this case shows other students that fighting censorship is not hopeless.
“The message to students facing similar types of censorship is that just because a school has prior review does not mean a school can censor anything they want,” Goldstein said. “Prior review is just looking at the newspaper. If the school wants to take something out, there are legal standards that must be followed.”
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 were the same as those addressed in the school’s sex education curriculum.
The Caldron‘s efforts to appeal the censorship to the superintendent and school board were rejected.
Bennett Zurofsky, the students’ attorney, wrote a letter to the school board attorney that stated 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.
Zurofsky’s letter made clear that his clients would pursue legal action if the issue could not be resolved. He said that once \nthe school board realized they had no legal grounds for censorship \nand 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 allowed “Let’s Talk About Sex” and its sidebar to be published in the October issue of The Caldron.
The agreement states that there will be no censorship of The Caldron until the Caldwell-West Caldwell Board of Education \awfully implements censorship standards in accordance with the law as written in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District.
Goldstein said that this case is a good example of a positive outcome of students knowing, and fighting for, their rights.
“In general, an informed student journalist can avoid some pitfalls that the uninformed student journalist might fall into,” Goldstein said. “When it comes to censorship, being informed about your rights is like learning to do CPR. Knowing your rights won’t stop a principal from making a bad decision any more than knowing CPR will prevent someone from having a heart attack, but in either case, knowing what to do certainly makes a positive outcome more likely.”
Zurofsky said the biggest worry now is that this case will prompt the Caldwell-West Caldwell School Board 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 Gerardi failed to return messages from the SPLC asking for comment, Newark’s The Star-Ledger reported 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.”