Professional journalist speaks out in favor of students as New Jersey school board reconsiders prior review policy

Discussion and disagreement over a New Jersey high school’s prior review policy has moved a professional journalist to speak out on behalf of student journalists.

Adviser Thomas McHale, who oversaw Hunterdon Central Regional High School’s student newspaper for a decade, resigned in May after school officials started enforcing the district’s prior review policy. Though the district says prior review has been the policy since 1998, McHale and his students have said it wasn’t enforced prior to last school year.

In a letter to the editor published in The Hunterdon Democrat last week, journalist Jonathan Storm criticized the prior review situation and the reasoning behind it.

District officials have said the policy is in place in part to avoid liability. Storm said when he wrote about school boards at the beginning of his career, he heard similar reasoning.

“Potential litigation and ‘dangerous precedents’ were frequently cited by the most backward boards that ran the least successful school systems,” Storm wrote in his letter. “Responsible student editors and faculty advisors are well aware of the legal ramifications of what they publish — more so I would say than a school principal — and the numerous awards won by The Lamp over the years attest to the responsibility and skill of those who produce it.”

Storm also challenged statements by Hunterdon Democrat Managing Editor Curtis Leeds, who met with the district superintendent, the school’s principal and members of The Lamp staff.

According to an article published in The Hunterdon Democrat last month, “Leeds told the students that prior review is part of the foundation of modern journalism where editors — and sometimes layers of editors — review articles before they are published.”

Storm disagrees.

“The work of editors at a newspaper determining and reviewing what is published is protected by the Constitution,” he wrote. “The Supreme Court has ruled that prior restraint by governmental officials of what is published is unconstitutional. Is Principal Cooley acting as an editor, or a governmental official? That does not seem clear.”

The school board is considering altering the policy in a way that would allow the paper’s adviser to be designated as the reviewer, Board Secretary Ray Krov said.

“It’s under review,” Krov said. “It’s recommended for review by the Student Activities Committee of the board to the board Policy Committee in terms of allowing additional flexibility to who the reviewer is.”