Colorado student shares his experience confronting and overcoming censorship

In conjunction with the approaching 25th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s pro-censorship Hazelwood ruling, the following is a column written by Steve Marcantonio, a Colorado high school student journalist, sharing his recent experience with censorship and how he worked with administrators to overcome it.

With a familiar feeling of excitement and accomplishment, I looked at the latest issue of my school’s newspaper and flipped it open to the page that I knew would contain my name in bold print, next to the title of Editor-in-Chief. It was the same page, I knew, that would contain the latest in a long succession of editorials I had written on what I feel to be the current state if my high school.

I opened the paper to that most sacred of opinion pages and found my name exactly where I thought it would be. However, when I looked around the page for my editorial about rude teachers, I found instead an older, yet unpublished editorial of mine about respecting substitute teachers, and a shiver of cold anger creeped its way up my spine.

We were in the middle of an editorial staff meeting while the rest of the class distributed the paper to classrooms all over campus, and my class advisor’s eyes were not hard to find in the small classroom.

The moment I met his gaze he clearly understood my expression for what it was and said simply, “I’m surprised you just noticed.”

After a discussion between the two of us, in front of the class of about 25, I discovered that my building principal, in her weekly “review” of our paper before printing, had pulled the story because she felt as though it attacked teachers and was not rooted in truth.

I was furious. I’d written quite a few pieces about my relationship with my principal, which had been rocky ever since I refused to allow her to shutter a community service and leadership group I ran, and they had all been printed with few or no edits at all, so I was blindsided about why this piece would’ve been pulled entirely.

It wasn’t that the piece was clearly slanted, or that it was poorly written. I had put it through the most stringent editing process available to me, so I still couldn’t fathom why my opinion was being stifled.

As soon as I could I rushed to the main office with a feeling of anxiety growing deep inside my stomach. When asked about it, my principal directed me to an assistant principal who, she claimed, could answer all of my questions. After wasting both my time and the assistant principal’s, we determined that he could not help me as my principal had claimed because he was not a participant in the bi-weekly censorship sessions.

I decided that when I approached my principal the following day, I would be armed with knowledge and possible alternate courses of action should our meeting go downhill. I first went to the ACLU’s website and printed off a case that they argued in Michigan that seemed very similar to mine. Then I found he website of an organization that looked to be made for situations like this: the Student Press Law Center.

I searched the site for laws in Colorado pertaining to freedom of press and was pleased to find that my home state is one of the most progressive when it comes to student press rights, and had even passed a statute protecting the freedoms of student writers and editors.

I printed off this information and SPLC’s very convenient explanation of who the law applied to and when, and again approached my principal. This time she brushed me off with what appeared to be growing annoyance. When I told her that the circumstances around the incident had changed and that there was a law that must be adhered to, she responded by angrily saying “No there’s not. This is a public high school newspaper and I am the school principal,” as well as something about her rights over the newspaper.

At first, I felt helpless and disempowered. I had given hundreds of hours to my school only for its sake and I was being treated as though I were some kind of hooligan tagging up the bathroom. The anxiety I had been feeling for two days continued to grow as the situation and final exams carried on, a feeling that I didn’t intend to let continue over the course of the impending winter break.

I immediately emailed the SPLC with my situation, and in the same hour emailed a copy of that email to all of the members of the Board of Education and my Superintendent,  all of whom I knew through my position on our district’s Council of Student Representatives (like School Board Junior).

The very next day I went into the office to make an appointment with my principal, a last ditch effort before I involved the SPLC and the ACLU. She came out of her office as I was making the appointment with her secretary and told me that we would be meeting with the Director of Secondary Schools, a woman who I knew to be my principal’s immediate boss, and the mother of an acquaintance of mine.

The day after that I was pulled out of my class to meet with my principal, her boss, and my newspaper advisor.

After a short meeting (in which I learned that often a lot of talking doesn’t really yield a lot of results), I was allowed to run my editorial in the first edition of the second semester newspaper with minor grammatical and semantic edits. I was also extended an invitation by the Director to involve her whenever and if ever this issue arose again, so that it might be solved quickly without the involvement of the Board.

I was also given a brief lecture about respecting the chain of command in some institutions, at which time I had to bite my tongue, because if you can easily solve a problem by going to the most authoritative figure, why waste time going through thirty steps of bureaucracy?

Now here we are, in second semester (the last of my high school career), my newspaper will be printing 16 pages every two weeks (double its former length of only 8 pages, all self-funded), and my relationship with my principal has improved markedly, hopefully for good this time. I once again feel empowered to give voice to my opinion and to allow others to do the same via the newspaper I work on every week with passion.

I wanted to share my story with the Student Press Law Center and their readers because I believe it is an example of how a student, supported by his or her teacher(s), can overcome censorship and the belittled feeling that comes with it.

Editor’s note: Colorado is one of seven states that have passed free expression laws that protect student journalists. You can read the Colorado law on our website or view laws in other states.