New Jersey high school newspaper staff protest prior review policy in editorial

NEW JERSEY — Student journalists at Hunterdon Central Regional High School protested the school’s decision to enforce prior review with an editorial published Wednesday, about a week after their adviser resigned over the policy.

Co-Editor-in-Chief Patrick Lin said he hopes the editorial will raise “public awareness” about the situation. He also plans to speak about the prior review policy at an upcoming school board meeting.

Adviser Tom McHale resigned on May 27 over the enforcement of the district’s prior review policy, but is finishing the school year. In his resignation letter, McHale said that he could not “in all good conscience” continue as adviser under the policy.

The paper was published without prior review for the first nine years that McHale advised The Lamp. Last fall, a new principal began enforcing a long-standing district policy, McHale said.

“For the nine years prior to this, I met with the principal and would discuss what was going to be in the paper and who was interviewed … it was a discussion between the principal and I and the kids,” McHale said.

McHale said Principal Suzanne Cooley was directed to enforce the policy by District Superintendent Christina Steffner. Cooley and Steffner could not be reached for comment despite multiple attempts.

Nancy Tucker, the school district’s communications officer, said in an email that board policy “requires prior review,” but that it “allows for very specific timelines and a grievance procedure for claims of censorship.”

“The policy on student publications has been in effect since 1998; it is typical of the policies in effect in many public school districts,” Tucker wrote. “Prior review is not intended for the purpose of censorship or editorial control, but to protect the privacy rights of students, avoid disruption to the educational environment and protect the district from liability.”

While Tucker said the paper “is not an independent student newspaper” because it is funded by the district’s board of education, McHale said he disagrees.

McHale said he is paid a stipend by the board and that the board provides computers and a classroom but that the students fundraise the money that pays for the newspaper itself.

“We’re certainly more independent than most school newspapers and I don’t know how much more independent a school newspaper can get,” McHale said.

McHale said throughout the school year he “was in conversations to try to change” the enforcement practice and that he met with the Board of Education’s Student Activities Committee to attempt to change the policy itself. Emails to multiple board members were not returned.

McHale said he “had made it clear that I wasn’t going to continue under prior review,” and resigned when he realized no progress was being made.

Tucker said no resignation was needed.

“While all advisor positions at Hunterdon Central require an annual application and appointment, and thus no resignation was necessary, Hunterdon Central has received Mr. McHale’s resignation with regret,” Tucker said. “The district appreciates his years of service to the students of our community.”

For McHale, the position was hard to let go.

“I love it. It’s what I do, it’s who I am. I care a great deal about student expression and running the school newspaper,” McHale said. “I’ve been doing it for 10 years and I planned on doing it for 10 more.”

At first, McHale’s decision wasn’t easy for Lin to accept either. Lin, a senior, has been on the paper since his freshman year, and said McHale had become a mentor as well as an adviser.

“In my head I was like, ‘oh Mr. McHale, how could you do this to us?’” Lin said. “But in the end I think I better understood his position and I understood that he was standing up for his beliefs and his principles.”

The policy has slowed the paper’s production schedule down, in addition to making the students cautious in their coverage, McHale said.

In his letter of resignation, McHale explained that “prior review diminishes the educational value of” working for the paper.

“Prior review removes the responsibility from student journalists and puts it into the hands of the administration,” McHale wrote. “While some may see this as protecting students, in reality, it keeps students from practicing to become the ethical citizens the school’s mission statement charges us with creating. I believe there is nowhere else in the school where this happens.”

Lin said getting rid of the prior review policy could increase communication between students and administrators as well as increasing the students’ appetites for accuracy.

“I feel because of that increased responsibility, that increased sort of risk, it also teaches the writers and editors to be more responsible, more ethical in their work,” Lin said.

Though brainstorming sessions were uninhibited her first year on the paper, Managing Editor Kelly Yu said that “once prior review started, everyone seemed a little more hesitant to share certain ideas,” especially ideas concerning the administration.

Yu said she doesn’t blame her principal for the situation, but feels the prior review policy has to go.

“I think she just wanted to make sure she was doing her job,” Yu said. “What we’re trying to do is change that part of her job.”

In general, Yu said a prior review policy opens the door to articles being censored.

“I think prior review itself in any circumstance kind of hinders the newspaper or the publication because it ultimately leads to censorship,” she said. “It seems like if they don’t like something, if one person doesn’t like something, it could be pulled from the paper.”

By Sara Tirrito, SPLC staff writer. Contact Tirrito by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 124.