Editor meets with officials over censored high school paper in Arizona

ARIZONA — A Globe High School newspaper editor met withthe principal and superintendent Monday in an attempt to clear up a Dec. 7incident in which school officials pulled 700 issues of The Papoose. Theincident sparked a public disagreement between newspaper staffers andadministrators regarding why the papers were pulled.

Co-editor NathanO’Neal said in an e-mail to the Student Press Law Center that during themeeting he spoke with the superintendent and principal about his idea for adistrict policy that protects students against “blatant censorship andprotects our individual rights.”

Globe Unified School DistrictSuperintendent Timothy Trent said after Monday’s meeting withO’Neal, he will be meeting with Principal Sherrill Stephens and studentjournalists to work out a policy for the paper.

Stephens did not give anydetails about Monday’s meeting, but said O’Neal’s questions wereanswered.

In a Feb. 7 Phoenix New Times article, O’Neal and hisco-editor, Shelby McLoughlin, said Stephens confiscated their papers because oftwo articles. One was an editorial by O’Neal, in which he said there is a

“lack of motivation” from students and staff at school. The otherwas the word “Whudafxup” in a headline that went with a storycriticizing a “Whudafxup” campaign by TRUTH.

TRUTH is ananti-smoking campaign run by the American Legacy Foundation, whose ads run onthe Channel One morning broadcast at Globe High School. According to the NewTimes, Channel One donates TVs to school districts, but only if the schoolsbroadcast their program. The editors told the New Times thatadministrators said the word in the headline was”inappropriate.”

But soon after the New Times article waspublished, Robert Miller, interim director of business operations for GlobeUnified School District, issued a public statement on the school’s Website that said the real reason for the censorship was a front-page photo ofsomeone smoking what could have been tobacco, marijuana or meth from a hookah.

Miller said administrators also were concerned about the article inside thepaper. The article discussed how hookahs are becoming a trend, includedinformation on the key parts of a hookah and wrote about several dangers ofhookah smoking. The article quoted a World Health Organization Advisory thatsays hookah smoking exposes the user to more smoke than one cigarette.

“Considering the surplus of detrimental effects and risks tohookah-smoking, one would question why high school students insist on partakingin such a potentially dangerous form of recreation in substitute of traditionalcancer-causing cigarettes,” the article read.

Miller said in hisopinion, the article was about how to build and use a hookah or bong. It wasalso written by a suspended student and included interviews from students underthe age of 18, he said.*

“Even if the article was merely about the useof tobacco products, quotes by high school students using such productsillegally could have exposed them and their parents to unnecessary andembarrassing scrutiny,” he stated in the press release.

Miller toldthe Student Press Law Center that attorneys for the district advised theadministration that two previous court decisions made the censorship”prudent and allowable.” The lawyers referred to the U.S. SupremeCourt’s 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision, whichsaid school officials generally may censor items in school-sponsored outlets ifthey can present a reasonable educational justification for doing so and if theyhave not traditionally allowed students to make final content decisions. Thesecond decision was in Morse v. Frederick, when the Supreme Court ruledin June 2007 that schools may punish student speech that advocates the use ofillegal drugs.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press LawCenter, said the administration’s justification for withholding thenewspaper is not legally sufficient under either Hazelwood or


“The Supreme Court has been quite clear that, even afterMorse, student speech retains First Amendment protection and that theburden is on the censor to show that the speech will genuinely impair theschool’s educational function.”

The hookah story appears to be aneven-handed discussion, LoMonte said, of a phenomenon that is impactingstudents.

“Schools can’t properly invoke Morse to scourtheir news pages of every story that merely mentions drugs,” LoMonte said.

O’Neal said in an e-mail that the Papoose article was relevantto the student body and was written as an objective, informative piece —

not to encourage drug use. The staff wanted to publish something in Decemberthat would grab students’ attention because this was only the second paperthey had put out that school year.

Miller told the SPLC that the studenteditors were told in a meeting that the censorship was in response to the hookaharticle and photo, but that student editors only told the New Times aboutO’Neal’s editorial and the “Whudafxup”headline.

O’Neal maintained that while he and other editors did meetwith the principal the day the papers were taken away, the only questionablematerial brought up was the editorial and headline. Not until after the NewTimes article was published did administrators mention the hookah piece, hesaid.

O’Neal said administrators have never reviewed the paper beforepublication, and the adviser reviewed content only to correct grammar and styleerrors. The staff waited a week for the adviser to review the Dec. 7 issue, butwhen they reached deadline and it had not been reviewed, they took the papers tothe printer anyway, O’Neal said. Before the staff could distribute thepapers the following day, administrators pulled the copies.

According tothe Arizona School Boards Association Web site, Globe Unified School Districthas a Student Publications policy that states, “Students shall be requiredto submit publications to the Superintendent for approval prior todistribution.” But Trent said he was unaware of a current policy regardingstudent publications.

In light of the controversy, a Lincoln-Douglas debateon Thursday will focus on First Amendment rights and student newspapers, Millersaid. The debate, which will take place Thursday at the high school, involvesstudents in the Close Up Foundation. Miller said these students are preparingfor a debate they will compete in when they travel to Washington D.C. this year.

But O’Neal, a member of the club, said only Close Up students areallowed to participate in the debate.

“I don’t really see thepoint of having a debate if the administration isn’t going to take a standand face the students on this issue,” O’Neal said.

O’Neal,who said the staff is in the finishing stages of putting together their firstpaper since the incident, said what is really “discouraging” to himis the effect this has had on his father and McLoughlin’s mother, who bothare teachers for the district.

“They publicly discredited us and ourcharacter to all district employees via e-mail, and then to the communitythrough press releases and the radio,” he said.

UPDATE, Feb. 27 — After this article was published, Miller called the SPLC to clarify that the author’s status as a suspended student was not an official factor in the administrators’ decision to pull the newspaper. Return to story.