After story about school thefts, Pa. newspaper placed under prior review

PENNSYLVANIA —For 33 years, students at Unionville High School in Kennett Square, Pa., haveproduced the award-winning Indian Postas their student newspaper – until last month. Following a dispute with schooland district administrators over prior review, the student staff created anddistributed an alternate, independent newspaper, The Outpost.

When Indian Poststaffers wrote and published an article in March about school thefts, theythought they were just publishing another story. However, according to TaraTakoushian, co-editor in chief of the IndianPost at the time, the school subsequently placed the newspaper under priorreview as a direct reaction to the article.

“The school district seemed like it – you know, they reactedpretty badly to the article,” said Takoushian. “Because of that, we were toldwe were put under prior review.”

The article covered school theft and featured severalparagraphs about a student’s on-campus arrest for theft of school propertyearlier in the year. Indian Poststaffers felt it was a relevant issue to cover.

“He was walked out with his hands behind his back by twouniformed policemen during 9th period through the cafeteria from the office, soit was a pretty public manner of arrest,” said Laura Booth, Takoushian’sco-editor at the time. Both Takoushian and Booth have since graduated.

After debating how to cover the theft, they decided as astaff to take a broader view of the incident, using it to discuss thefts atschool in general. The student was never identified by name.

“When the article broke, March 23, [the arrested student]was back from being suspended and saw it in class and freaked out and got upand ran away,” said Booth.

According to Booth, school and district officials took issuewith the article because they claimed the student was indirectly identifiable.

“I think the school anticipated a lawsuit, which has notbeen forthcoming, so they decided to impose prior review on our paper,” shesaid. “I think there was some feeling that our advisers failed in their role ascensors or as screens.”

“Did the school board think that our advisers were priorreviewers, or were they just exempting the IndianPost from prior review? I think that led to more questions that I thinkwe’re still not 100 percent sure about,” Takoushian said.

When the staff realized it was unlikely they would reach anagreement with the school board before the next issue and would have to publishunder prior review, they balked.

Instead, staffers distributed The Outpost at local businesses near the school May 24-26.

“We didn’t do the underground paper to, you know, toretaliate against anything – we just wanted to get the word out there aboutwhat was happening, and responses that we had,” Takoushian said.

“For them to impose prior review in retaliation for anarticle that is maybe critical of the administration, and also from a legalstandpoint… doesn’t invade the kid’s privacy to begin with – I mean, that’sillegal in my eyes,” Booth said.

The school cited a district-wide student expression code asjustification for instituting prior review on the Indian Post. Principal Paula Massanari, who did not respond toseveral requests to comment for this story, said in an interview with the Daily Local News that “under the policy,any material distributed to students must be reviewed by a district staffmember or official.”

Massanari said the code meant the school should have put theIndian Post under prior review in2003, when the code went into effect, but never did.

Booth said she was shocked when school officials used thedistrict policy to apply prior review to the newspaper and said she found thetiming suspicious. She said the policy previously was applied to posters andflyers posted on campus.

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press LawCenter, said that a state code protecting student expression overrules thedistrict’s policy. He explained that although the district has the right toimplement prior review, they violated the state code by choosing to enforce itonly after the student newspaper printed something they disagreed with.

“Presumably it will come as no shock to Unionvilleadministrators that they work for the state of Pennsylvania,” Goldstein said.“It should also then not shock them that when their rules conflict with thestate of Pennsylvania’s rules, their boss wins, like anywhere else in theworld.”

Takoushian said the newspaper should be able to publishnewsworthy stories.

“I believe that whatever is newsworthy – whether it’s goodor bad for the student or puts them in a positive or negative light – what isnewsworthy at our school should be published,” Takoushian added. “I mean, it isthe high school’s newspaper. It is for the students and by the students. And Ithink that’s something that’s forgotten a lot of the time.”

Booth agreed.

“[Publishing TheOutpost] was definitely a message to say to the school that you can’texpect us to take such a decision lightly and to walk away from it as if itdidn’t mean anything to us,” Booth said.

This will be the only issue of The Outpost, as independent production costs were too high forstudents to maintain. However, in addition to publishing The Outpost, the staff of the IndianPost met with the district superintendent and spoke at a school boardmeeting to protest the district’s application of the prior review policy to thepaper.

The June issue of the IndianPost contains a notification that the paper was produced under priorreview.