'Advisory board' formed after Ga. student paper runs 'Modest Proposal'-style satire

GEORGIA — An “editorial advisory board” will overseepublication of East Coweta High School’s student newspaper in response to theSeptember issue, which contained several “negative” articles — including a columncriticizing a school beauty pageant and a satire suggesting that low-performing fifth-graders be executed — the principal announced Tuesday.

In Tuesday’s meeting during the students’ journalism block, Principal DerekPitts announced that Elizabeth McFadden, a psychology teacher, would be thenewspaper’s new adviser, replacing journalism teacher Ellen Thomas, who resignedlast week, according to Caitlyn VanOrden, the former Smoke Signals managing editor. Thomas, who could not be reached for comment, still will teachthe journalism class.

Coweta School District spokesman Dean Jackson said the editorial boardwould not have the final decision over what is printed in the paper. Rather, theboard, which will consist of two senior student editors and two teachers, willoffer suggestions to McFadden and the students regarding the content. Thesuggestions are not binding, Jackson said, and it will be up to McFadden and thestudents to consider any possible changes.

“This is an internal editorial process,” he said. “Not censorship.”

VanOrden, who resigned her position after Tuesday’s meeting, said sheis not willing to accept the deal.

“We have already run the paper by ourselves,” she said. “We as studentshave already proven we use good editorial judgment.”

Jackson said the new advisory board does not change how the paper isrun.

“As far as final editorial decisions go, there’s been no changes in policyor in practice,” he said.

VanOrden, who said she would not write for the paper unless it returned tooperating as it did in the past, has worn a black armband for the past severaldays to protest the changes. The armbands evoke the Supreme Court’s 1969decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District,which upheld students’ right to wear armbands to protest the Vietnam War. Thecourt ruled in the landmark student speech case that students do not “shed theirconstitutional right to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate”and that administrators can only censor student speech if it will cause amaterial disruption or violate the rights of others.

“This is to remind students that the court has affirmed we do have rights,”VanOrden said.

The controversy began when the September issue of Smoke Signals— called the most widely read edition to date by both administrators andstudents — was distributed as normal on Sept. 25. A few days later, Pittscollected all remaining issues, including papers in the journalism classroom,and stored them in his office, where they still remain, Jackson said,.

“It was not his intent to censor or stop the paper,” Jackson said.

VanOrden said the principal told the staff that the issue showed the schoolin a “negative light” and that he wanted a “positive, upliftingpublication.”

Jackson, the district spokesman, said Pitts objected to several articles inthe latest issue, especially on the opinion page, including a satirical columntitled “Another ‘Modest Proposal.'” The column was modeled after JonathanSwift’s “A Modest Proposal,” in which Swift suggested eating the babies of thepoor to end poverty in Ireland. The Smoke Signals piece suggestedeuthanizing the fifth grade students who perform in the bottom 25 percent onstandardized tests to eliminate stupidity from America.

Pitts did not return phone calls; Jackson said the principal declined tocomment to the Student Press Law Center.

“Some people had misread this,” Jackson said. “If somebody is not familiarwith Jonathan Swift, then they would think it is just calling for the killing ofstudents.”

Jackson said several teachers and parents did misread the article andcomplained to the school.

Even for readers who understood the reference to Swift’s satire, “therewere still some people very upset in calling, even facetiously, for the killingof mentally deficient students,” Jackson said.

Pitts also objected to an opinion piece written by VanOrden that called theIndian Princess pageant “shallow” and “destructive.”

VanOrden said Pitts also questioned the use of the words “bastardized” and”hell” in the issue. Profanity is specifically banned in the school’s board’spublication policy.

But VanOrden said “bastardized” is not a swear word in the context of theopinion piece. Bastardized, according to American Heritage Dictionary, caneither mean to lower in quality or character or to declare someone a bastard.

She also said the word “hell” was used in a quote from a student –“It was hell” — in describing his experience at military boot camp in FortJackson, S.C., where four of his friends died in a storm. VanOrden said shequestions why the principal said the word was inappropriate, because it is usedin her history class when students read “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

As a result of the controversy surrounding the latest issue, Thomasvoluntarily resigned, Jackson said.

Smoke Signals‘ former adviser, Amy Riley — now a professor atthe University of West Georgia and part-time reporter for a local newspaper, the

Times-Herald — said she is acting as a mentor for the studentstaff. Riley acted as the paper’s adviser from 2003 until this past June. Shesaid she thinks the principal used the latest issue as an excuse to control thepaper.

“My concern is that the editorial board is selected by the adviser,” shesaid. “I would feel better about it if it were all students. My other concern isthat the final decision will be up to her and not the students.”

Pitts’ decision brings to light a sharp contrast between the school board’spolicy and the newspaper’s regarding who has final authority over the content ofthe paper. The school board policy states that student publications are notpublic forums and the administration “may exercise control over studentexpression” by not permitting speech that is “ungrammatical, poorly written,inadequately researched, biased, prejudiced, vulgar or profane, or unsuitablefor immature audiences.”

But Smoke Signals has declared itself an “open forum” in itsmasthead since the fall of 2006. In practice, the students previously made allcontent decisions and no administrators read the paper before publication, Rileysaid.

Whether the paper is a forum is important because it determines the legalstandard administrators must meet before they can censor the paper.

School-sponsored papers that are not forums are governed by the SupremeCourt’s 1988 ruling in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. In Hazelwood, thecourt ruled that administrators can censor school-sponsored speech if itinterferes with school’s “basic educational mission.”

Riley said that because Smoke Signals has acted as a forum since2003, it falls under the more protective Tinker standard, and the schoolboard policy does not apply.

“The school board policy is very restrictive,” Riley said. “But they stillhave to adhere to the Constitution.”

Although Riley believes that the Tinker standard should apply forSmoke Signals, she said even under Hazelwood the school’s actionsare not justified.

Hazelwood states that a “mere desire to avoid the discomfort andunpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint” does not permit a”blanket censorship authority.” Schools “must accommodate some student expression even if it offends themor offers views or values that contradict those the school wishes toinculcate.”

In other words, Hazelwood does not allow administrators to censorstudent speech just because they disagree with it.

According to VanOrden, that’s exactly what Pitts did.

“I don’t think anything in the paper met the Hazelwood standard,”she said.

VanOrden organized a Facebook group called “Let Freedom Ring for SmokeSignals” with 719 global members to date. She also is organizing a FirstAmendment rally outside of nearby Newnan’s old courthouse on Oct. 28.

In the meantime, VanOrden said she would meet with the new adviser andconsider her options. She said she is prepared to take legal actions ifnecessary.

“I’m not backing down,” she said.