Indiana high school students stop publishing paper in protest of prior review policy

INDIANA Students have stopped publishing their high school student newspaper in protest of a proposed school district policy that would name the school principal “publisher” of the publication and cement his ability to invoke prior review.

Megan Chase, a sophomore at Woodlan Junior-Senior High School and writer for The Tomahawk, wrote an opinion piece in January that discussed tolerance for and religious objections to homosexuality. When Principal Edwin Yoder saw the article after publication, he required future prior review of the newspaper because he said the article was inappropriate for the school’s younger audience, according to Tomahawk Editor Cortney Carpenter.

East Allen County Schools Assistant Superintendent Andy Melin later said that the article was not allowed to be published because it lacked support and balance in the way it was written.

“We don’t want it to inhibit them; we want some reflection on what is written,” Melin said. “That’s they way it should be with any publication.”

Despite the administrator’s reasoning, Carpenter said she does not want to work for a publication that is censored by school administrators.

Melin met with Woodlan students after the school board refused to discuss the conflict at a meeting last month. Superintendent Kay Novotny had told the students to meet with Melin to resolve the situation.

The Tomahawk staff turned in a copy of the publication for review to Yoder on March 6, and received a “corrected” version two days later, with a request to have the school’s student publications policy printed in the newspaper, according to Tomahawk Adviser Amy Sorrell.

Melin said that he is requiring all five high schools to publish the district’s student publications policy, which was enacted in 2003 to establish consistency within the district. The 2003 policy permits school officials to “regulate the content of such publications and productions in a reasonable manner” with the power to “edit or delete material that is inconsistent with the educational mission.”

Melin said he developed a revision to the current policy which names the principal publisher and establishes legal guidelines, but will need school board approval. He said he is currently seeking input from students and advisers.

“I think that the key factor in all this that our goal is to try to make sure that the publications produced by the students are of the highest quality and that we protect our students if something were to be written that would put them or the school in jeopardy,” Melin said.

By giving ultimate control to the school principal, the new policy would tighten editorial guidelines that currently permit advisers and school officials to make certain that “articles or commentaries in a school-sponsored publication or production maintain a level of ‘responsible journalism’ and ‘journalistic integrity.’ ” These terms are not defined in the district policy.

The proposed changes also include that “Only the building principal, as the ‘publisher’ of the [school paper] is authorized to seek legal advice related to publication decisions,” a provision not addressed in the current district policy. The Tomahawk editorial policy currently states that any legal inquiries should first be directed to the Student Press Law Center.

“We would expect any legal questions to first come to our legal counsel,” Melin said. “If they felt the need to look into other options, our legal counsel could do that.”

At a state journalism symposium last week, Sorrell said she and the Tomahawk staff spoke with representatives from the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Civil Liberties Union about the situation.

Carpenter discussed the situation with her staff and has chosen to stop the presses as a protest against the administration. She also said that the staff plans to publish their articles on an “anonymous” Web site so they can keep writing under their own guidelines.

“I never thought it would get this far,” Carpenter said. “We’re not going to back down.”

By Erica Hudock, SPLC staff writer

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