Pa. school board considers policy to prior review top high school journalism program

PENNSYLVANIA — Student journalists in Pennsylvania arecontesting a proposed policy they believe would force censorship of theiraward-winning student newspaper.

Editors of the Spoke, the newspaper at Conestoga High School inBerwyn, Pa., say the policy would implement administrative prior review andredefine the role of the newspaper advisers, essentially asking them to censorthe student-produced publication at the discretion of school officials.

“We have such a strong responsibility to serve the students,teachers, administrators and all the community members, and we feel that’sour charge,” said Henry Rome, who was the paper’s editor-in-chiefuntil graduating in June. “That will be taken away if the policy isenacted.”

As part of a scheduled review of several district policies, theTredyffrin/Easttown School Board is suggesting a switch from the current 86-wordstatement on student publications to a seven-page policy. The policy states theadviser’s role includes insuring no content published is “in poortaste as a reflection of the school and its student body” and allows theprincipal the “opportunity to review proof materials beforepublication.”

Rome said he believes the new policy is in reaction to some of theSpoke‘s award-winning, but controversial, content over the pastyear.

In this year’s final issue, Rome wrote a story about an elementaryschool janitor accused of two armed robberies. While other local media printedthe basic facts, Rome spent months looking through public records, schooltimesheets and court records from several counties. Rome discovered thecustodian had a criminal past, did not report his criminal charges to thedistrict, and took vacation days to serve jail sentences.

Earlier in the 2008-09 school year, the Spoke publishedcontroversial stories including one on teen pregnancy and another on studentswho are openly gay or bi-sexual. Rome and current Spoke editor SethZweifler won the National High School Press Association’s 2008 News Storyof the Year for an investigative report on teen sports gambling.

Rome was named the Journalism Education Association’s National HighSchool Journalist of the Year in 2008. Both Rome and Zweifler are interning atprofessional newspapers this summer and have worked on the Spoke fortheir entire high school careers.

“I can guarantee that if this policy change is put into effect thatthe Spoke will not be able to produce that quality of journalism,” Romesaid. “It would not be a quality publication. It would censor whatwe’re doing.”

Tredyffrin/Easttown Superintendent Daniel Waters confirmed the policychange was part of a scheduled review of district policies. He refused tocomment further. Members of the Tredyffrin/Easttown school board could not bereached.

Zweifler said if the policy is enacted, it could cause a trend ofself-censorship. For his part, he said the policy would be a “logisticalnightmare.” With prior review, an administrator would review the contentseveral days before publication. If something was removed, Zweifler said hewould be rushed to find an appropriate story to replace it.

“We frown greatly on prior review,” Zweifler said. “I cansay, with a great deal of certainty, that as the editor-in-chief for theupcoming year, I would definitely think twice when assigning a story that mightbe deemed controversial if there was a system of administrative prior review inplace.”

Zweifler calls the section of the proposed policy that defines theadviser’s role a “double-edged sword,” because it tasks themto teach students proper journalism but makes them pawns for censorship at thehands of school officials.

“So you’re educating students by censoring them?”Zweifler asked. “That doesn’t add up.”

Rome and Zweifler have created a Web site calling for support from thecommunity and past Spoke staffers. They recently met with a member of theschool board who serves on the policy committee and are calling on local mediato report the story.

“We know this is an example of censorship,” Zweifler said.

“We’re just trying to spread the word to the community, which hasbeen very supportive of the Spoke.”

The district policy committee will discuss the policy at its next meetingon Aug. 20. After the committee approves a policy, the full board must hold tworeadings of the proposed document.

Spoke editors have contacted the Student Press Law Center for legaladvice on several stories over the past year.

“Therefore, it is only natural that the SPLC is monitoring ourcurrent situation, because it appears that the school district is changing itspolicy as punishment for the same controversial stories that the SPLC assistedus with,” Rome said.

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, saidadministrators should explain the rationale for implementing a new policy.

“When you have journalists who win this many awards, and stories thatwin this many awards, and administrators decide they need to change the program,it isn’t too hard to figure out what they’re trying to do,”Goldstein said. “This is already arguably the best program in the nation,and they’re going to throw it away because it exposed too many of theirproblems.”

Rome, who will enroll at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., to studyjournalism in the fall, said he will continue to fight against the policychanges to ensure future Spoke student journalists can report onimportant and controversial issues.

“They teach you in chemistry class the latest science anddiscoveries, and in math class, they teach you the procedures and formulas youneed to know,” Rome said. “But apparently they don’t think thenewspaper class should teach us how to be journalists.”

For More Information:

  • July 2009 podcast: Editors of Conestoga High School’s national award-winning student newspaper, The Spoke, Henry Rome and Seth Zweifler discuss their school board’s proposal to prior review content.
  • Pa. high schooler wins JEA Journalist of the Year award News Flash, 7/15/2009