Principal pulls magazine column critical of football team

OHIO — After a school’s principal censored a high school magazine article critical of the football team, the school superintendent has announced he will broaden school officials’ oversight of the publication.

The staff of Odin’s Word, Princeton High School’s magazine, was told to physically remove the two pages from the more than 2,000 copies of the December 2006 issue that contained junior Evan Payne’s column.

Although Principal Ray Spicher declined to say in an interview why he pulled the column, Princeton schools Superintendent Aaron Mackey said Spicher wanted to avoid conflict between the magazine’s staff and the football team. Also, he said Spicher believed the opinion piece failed to meet minimum journalism standards, as it lacked interviews with coaches, players or opposing teams.

Payne’s parents sent a letter of complaint to the school district superintendent defending the merit of the opinion piece and criticizing the principal’s motivation. The letter also referred to the magazine’s publication policy, which says the magazine is an open forum.

According to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling in Hazlewood School District v. Kuhlmeier, if a school-funded publication is a public forum for student expression, it can only be censored if the subject matter would cause a substantial disruption of school activities or invade the rights of others.

In Mackey’s reply letter to Payne’s parents, he said administrators did not approve the publication policy that includes the public forum statement, which has been in place since 2005. He said the 2005 policy does not afford administrators the authority to which they are entitled.

“This “new’ policy, of course, does not reflect the case law and the Supreme Court decisions that have been made that give school districts broad powers and responsibilities over their publications,” Mackey wrote in the letter.

In an interview he said the policy that had been in place prior to 2005 did not include the “open forum” language. He said he noticed the change after Payne’s article was pulled, and he said the previous policy would be reinstated. An adviser had added the wording, and he did not have the right to do so, Mackey said.

Mackey also said he is appointing a district official to act as an additional adviser for the publication.

“I thought: another pair of eyes to help the adviser,” he said. “There ought to be some work done on the front end done with guidance and proper oversight.”

Paula Payne, Evan’s mother, expressed dismay at Mackey’s response, and she said she will appeal her grievance to the entire school board in February.

It was just such a knee jerk, capricious reaction to his article, which was rather tame,” she said in an interview.

The column was motivated by the football team’s 8-23 record during the past three years. Evan Payne blamed coaching tactics, such as focusing on a passing game with a freshman quarterback rather than running the ball, and he chided the players, but he did not mention anyone by name.

“It’s hard to watch them play,” he wrote. “It looks like a flag football game except they still can’t score.”

Ruth Pearson, chief editor of Odin’s Word, said while the staff stands by Payne and his column, they have moved on with their work. The January issue was recently published, and they now are working on the February issue.

We’ve come to terms with it,” she said. “There’s only so much we can do to fight.”

Pearson, who is a senior, said she is concerned about how future staffs will deal with officials’ increased involvement in the publication, adding that it would be incongruent with the magazine’s goals.

“One of our missions as a magazine is not to tell students what to think, but to let students think for themselves,” Pearson said. “Some of that would kinda be lost.”

By Brian Hudson, SPLC staff writer