Ohio principal censors student obituary and photograph

OHIO — The principal of Stow-Munroe Falls High School iscensoring the student newspaper to prevent the publication of an obituaryand photograph of a recent student suicide victim, going against theschool’s traditional practice.

It has been the school’s policy for decades to run an obituary orarticle and photograph of a student or faculty member who passes away. Inaddition to both elements, Editor-in-Chief Lindsey Sager said the suicidevictim’s mother also wrote a letter to be published in the paper thankingher son’s friends, and assuring students that if they needed anything, thefamily would be there.

Originally Principal Susan Schure was OK with all three elements beingincluded in The Stowhion. Then a few days before they were to go topress, Schure insisted the obituary and photograph be removed from thepaper.

Schure did not wish to be quoted for the press. She felt while students maystill be vulnerable, publishing the parents’ letter was an effective wayto show support for the student and his family.

Adviser Joann Donaldson spoke to Schure to tell her she would be contactingthe student’s mother. After Donaldson spoke to the mother about includingthe letter, she sent an e-mail to the staff at Stow-Munroe asking if they orother students wanted to include anything in the paper about the event. Not morethan 30 minutes later, Schure objected.

“Within a half hour, [Schure] had sent out an e-mail that said’we are not going to do this’ without consulting me,”Donaldson said. “She said ‘I understand that it’s censorshipand I’m OK with that.'”

Sager said in 2005 The Stowhion reported on two suicides thatreceived full pages with no pressure from administrators, and has been acting asa public forum for years, even though Ohio does not have a Student FreeExpression Law.

The 1988 ruling in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier held that a highschool-sponsored newspaper produced as part of a class and without a “policy or practice”establishing it as a public forum for studentexpression can be censored only when school officials demonstrate a reasonableeducational justification and the censorship is viewpoint neutral.

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center saidbecause Ohio is in the sixth circuit, this kind of censorship is unlawfulbecause of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit’s 2001 ruling inKincaid v. Gibson. The case ruled that when a school has both a policyand a practice, the practice is what determines forum status.

“If you’re operating as a forum, you’d have to show thata photograph is illegal to censor it,” Goldstein said. “And even ifthey weren’t a forum, this censorship doesn’t make sense. Idon’t think a school can show it’s part of its educational missionto deny the existence of dead students.”

While Sager said Schure thinks running the obituary and photograph couldinstigate other students to commit suicide, Sager thinks not running theelements would be discourteous to the student and his family.

“I still feel like if it’s something we did for everyone else,it would be disrespectful to not do it for him,” Sager said. “Idon’t understand what would make it OK to not do it for one child.”

Donaldson agrees that what the paper does for one student it must do forthe rest. She also thinks obituaries are a regularly occurring part of anypublication.

“You don’t open a paper and not see the obit section,” Donaldson said. “No, we haven’t had a death for five years, but I dofeel that because we are a publication, something needs to be put in. This hasbeen going on for decades. This is part of our publication.”