Principal censors newspaper's articles about tattoos

MISSOURI — Timberland High School Principal Winston Rogers isrefusing to give the editors of the student newspaper an explanation for why herequired replacement of a story in the second issue of their paper that includedads and an article about tattoos.

The original page included one story and an editorial, the storyinvestigating the health risks associated with getting tattoos and the editorialdiscussing the meaning of tattoos. The students also obtained two tattoo parlorads they wanted to publish. The principal initially prior reviewed and flaggedall four elements for changes. Rogers requested that the students add quotesthat portrayed the “conservative” side of the first article — specifically from employers who are turned off by interviewees with tattoos. 

Though the students made the required changes, ultimately only the ads werepermitted to print. The Wolf’s Howl was distributed Oct. 9 with afinal page that was pulled together with photos from the school’sHomecoming at the last minute to avoid blank space.

“We went down Wednesday afternoon to talk to principal and he said hewasn’t concerned about the articles, he just wanted to make sure we showedthe other side of the story,” said Nikki McGee, co-editor of TheWolf’s Howl. “Thursday was our layout night, and we thought wewere ready to go.”

On Friday morning, Rogers reviewed the issue with his original editsincluded and decided the final page needed to be pulled, without providing anyexplanation.

“He asked us to just trust him, and that it was being pulled becauseof ‘the principal’s discretion,'” McGee said.

Rogers did not respond to calls by press time.

Last school year administrators at Timberland objected to students’decision to accept a church’s ad with an anti-abortion message. After thead initially appeared, administrators demanded that the students pull the adfrom future editions and refund the church’s payment. McGee said sincelast year’s controversy, Rogers has required that he review each issue ofthe paper before it is distributed. However, the standard for high schoolpublications set by the Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier

does require school officials show they have reasonable justification forcensoring an article, according to Mike Hiestand, legal consultant for theStudent Press Law Center.

“A huge mistake that many school officials make is that they believeHazelwood gives them an unlimited license to censor,” Hiestandsaid. “Hazelwood did lower the bar … but it did not eliminatethat bar. The problem that we have here is that [Rogers] has not provided anysort of justification for his censorship, and that’sunlawful.”

The Hazelwood standard does not require school officials to providemuch information, but they have to provide at least some, Hiestand said.

Hiestand said that hopefully Rogers will realize he needs to provide thestudents with an explanation. McGee is worried because she believes hot topicslike tattooing are what pique students’ interests.

“Controversial topics really should not be avoided in the high schoolpaper; especially controversial topics with reasonable coverage,” McGeesaid. “I think it’s extremely unfair with this tattoo subject …all of our surrounding schools are covering it, and it’s such a big trendof 2009, especially in regards to teens.”