New Jersey students to appeal administrators' censorship to school board

NEW JERSEY — Kylie Sposato didn’t expect much controversy when she submitted a column about student smoking in the school bathrooms last month for publication in her high school newspaper, The Stinger.

It was part of her journalism class’s unit on opinion writing, after all, and she didn’t just spout off her thoughts on the issue without trying to back up her facts, she said — the piece included interviews with a school security guard, research about the health effects of secondhand smoke and a perspective from a classmate, along with her own criticism of the behavior.

Sposato was surprised, then, when she learned that the column wouldn’t be running in The Stinger’s December edition after all.

So was Samantha Gregory, when she learned that her story about the departure of the district’s athletic director for the same edition had been edited to remove two important final lines: one that said the director declined comment and another noting that the district hadn’t yet named a replacement.

And now, Pemberton Township High School journalism adviser Bill Gurden said officials have stalled students’ reporting efforts on another article. The topic of this one? Censorship.

Frustrated by the responses they’ve received on the situation from the principal and superintendent, students in the class plan to bring the issues before the school board at its meeting Thursday night, Gurden said.

Principal Ida Smith declined to comment and referred questions on the issue to superintendent Michael R. Gorman. Gorman said the principal has been reviewing the content of the student newspaper before publication since 2010. (The publication usually first goes through the head of the humanities department, he said, but that position is currently vacant.)

Gorman wouldn’t specify the origins of that procedure, but Gurden said it was put in place following the publication of an article on public displays of affection at the high school. That story, Gurden said, was fair, balanced and thoroughly reported but upset some school officials after it was published.

To Gurden — who spent 11 years as a sportswriter and 10 years as a copy editor at the Burlington County Times in New Jersey before transitioning into teaching — there was nothing wrong with the smoking column or the story about the athletic director, either. And administrators’ revisions on the latter article made it less journalistically sound because they removed a key acknowledgement that the student had tried to talk to the main subject of the story, he said.

“That sentence is standard operating procedure to show the journalist did the hard work,” he said.

Smith initially relayed the messages about the pieces to the students through Gurden, but Sposato — unsatisfied with the secondhand explanations she was receiving — set up her own meeting with Smith, where she said the principal told her the smoking column was “inappropriate.” Gregory, who wrote the story about the former athletic director, said last week that she also planned to reach out to Smith to discuss the changes to her story.

“It bothered me how they didn’t tell me they took the last thing out,” Gregory said. “The article itself wasn’t inappropriate… it was just a nice goodbye.”

From her perspective, Sposato said it seemed like officials were “censoring me and pushing my opinion down to make the school look better.”

As a result of the newspaper’s recent recent roadblocks, Gurden said Sposato and her classmate, Michael Thompson, came up with the idea to pursue a story examining student expression rights and censorship issues. The students planned to look broadly at other cases around the country, including the ongoing tussle between student journalists and administrators at Neshaminy High School in Pennsylvania.

The story seemed like a “fabulous learning tool,” Gurden said — one that would teach the student writers a lot about journalism and the First Amendment and that also would help to educate other students.

But when the students showed up for a scheduled interview with Smith, Gurden said the principal cut the meeting short and declined to comment, telling the students that she wouldn’t allow the article to appear in the next edition of the paper. Gorman said he also declined the students’ request for comment because of uncertainty about potential litigation, but he wasn’t aware of a statement barring publication of the article.

Michael Thompson, another student in the journalism class, was also troubled by school officials’ handling of the smoking column.

“My main problem is that it was a story that — although controversial — was not in any way incorrect or in any way inciting some sort of disturbance in the school,” Thompson said. “It’s a real problem in the school that we have supported by facts and genuine interviews.”

Gorman declined to discuss details of the pieces in question or administrators’ response to the pieces, but he said the topics were not, in fact, the issue. He did point to two points in district policy governing student publications that are relevant in this case, he said: the head of an organization that’s the subject of a piece needs to be consulted before publication and an article written about a faculty member must be reviewed by that faculty member. Those provisions are outlined in section 1111.1 of the district policy manual.

“If there is a teachable moment contained in these particular articles, we have to take advantage of that teachable moment,” Gorman said. “We have to retain integrity of instructional process.”

Gorman would not discuss in what way the decision not to publish the column on smoking or last two lines of the story about the athletic director lined up with that goal or board policy.

“Even when something is an opinion piece, it should be grounded in fact and taking information from those who are in a position to supply that information,” Gorman said, but didn’t identify a factual error in the piece.

Gorman said the decisions surrounding recent Stinger pieces were not driven by a desire to protect the school image. The newspaper has published pieces critical of the school district in the past, he said — for example, one that questioned the enforcement of the school dress code.

A 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, allows public high school officials to censor student publications that haven’t been designated as “public forums for student expression.” Some states have adopted additional protections for student journalists, but New Jersey is one of many states without such measures.

The administration’s editorial decisions seem to stem from a misunderstanding of the difference between journalism and public relations, Gurden said.

Gurden hopes that bringing the issue to the school board will help to “get the censorship problem worked out” soon. For now, he said he’s proud of how his students have responded to the situation.

“I think the students are handling this very professionally,” he said. “I’m pleased for them that they are standing up for their First Amendment rights.”

By Casey McDermott, SPLC staff writer. Contact McDermott by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.

Editor’s note, 1/24: In an earlier version of this story, the source of the final quote was not clear due to a misspelling in the preceding paragraph, which should have read, “Gurden hopes…”