Mass. middle school paper delayed over poll on student concerns

MASSACHUSETTS — Students at Amherst Regional MiddleSchool today received a delayed copy of this month’s Chestnut StreetJournal after administrators and students resolved issues over a studentpoll school officials alleged was flawed.

The 175-student poll — out of a school population of about 575 — reported that 78 percent of students feel their voicesare not heard at school. In addition, the poll found 76 percent saiddisciplinary practices make the school a worse place to come every day and 65percent do not think the school’s vision statement is reflective of theschool’s atmosphere.

After becoming aware of the poll story, school administrators initiallydecided not to print the newspaper.

American Civil Liberties Union attorney William C. Newman sent a letterMonday to Co-Interim Principals Fran Ziperstein and Michael Hayes, along withthree other school officials, asking them to reconsider their decision.

Administrators issued a letter to parents Thursday, explaining that theirdecision to withhold the newspaper’s March edition was not censorship butwas meant to give student editors an opportunity to distinguish opinion contentfrom news.

Joshua R. Wolfsun, an eight grader and member of the newspaper club, saidstudents met with administrators Friday and agreed to attach to each paper aletter outlining the administration’s concerns over the poll’saccuracy. He said the letter called for readers to distinguish opinion contentfrom news.

“It was a complete turnaround,” he said. “Seventy-twohours ago they said we would have to get more opinions and have more meetingsand we would have to redo the poll. I would hope that what changed their mindswas the fact that it’s the right thing to do.”

Wolfsun said the advisers and administration always review thepaper’s content before it is printed, but there has never been an issueuntil this month.

“I don’t think [the poll] was skewed,” he said. “Ifeel like it was a legitimate poll and I think we got accurate results.”

Wolfsun said Newman’s letter to administrators probably aided intheir decision to print the paper Friday.

“A restriction on, or loss of First Amendment rights, for any periodof time, of course, constitutes irreparable harm not only to the individuals orgroup being censored, but also to all persons who may be deprived of their rightto receive the information,” Newman’s letter stated.

The administrators’ letter to parents said after checking with theschool lawyer, they were confident that their actions were consistent with stateand federal law.

The current federal law was decided in a 1988 Supreme Court case,Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which found school officialsgenerally may censor items in school-sponsored student media if they can presenta reasonable educational justification for doing so, and if they have nottraditionally allowed students to make final content decisions.

The Massachusetts Student Free Expression Law grants stronger protection to “public secondary school” students, but neither the legislature nor the courts have defined whether middle school students fall in that category.*

Ziperstein told Springfield’s The Republican that thestudents’ method of face-to-face interviews in the lunch room may haveprovided skewed results, and said the school would prefer the entire studentbody to be polled.

“We want to help them understand good journalism,” she toldThe Republican. “I thought the kids raised some very importantissues.”

Multiple attempts to contact Ziperstein and newspaper adviser Justin Eckwere unsuccessful by Friday afternoon.

Hayes said in an e-mail to the Student Press Law Center that he and otherschool officials had not returned calls because they have been busy working withparents and students.

“Hopefully you will see that we were not trying to ban information,but rather work with the students on proper journalism,” he stated.

Newman’s letter to administrators pointed out that the paper haspublished polls in the past without administrative comment.

“That history leads to the obvious question,” Newman’sletter stated. “If the poll had reached the conclusion that there wasexcellent communication between the administration and the students, would youstill have censored publication of that result?”

CORRECTION, March 25: An earlier version of this article misstated the application of the Massachusetts Student Free Expression Law. The SPLC regrets the error. Return to story.