NJ student editor speaks out after administrators spike story about district tensions

NEW JERSEY — The editor-in-chief of a New Jersey high school newspaper planned to publish a story in the most recent edition about a conflict between administrators and the superintendent. Instead, she ended up publishing a story explaining why that article didn’t appear.

Adelina Colaku, a senior at Northern Highlands Regional High School and the editor of The Highland Fling, said she was prompted to write about the censorship because she didn’t believe administrators provided adequate justification for censoring her story under the district’s prior review policy.

Colaku initially planned to publish a story about the issues between the supervisors and superintendent — which were raised during public school board meetings last June — at the beginning of the school year. But she held off, she said, after Principal Joseph Occhino told her adviser that something had “changed the dynamic” of the situation. Colaku said her adviser doesn’t typically encourage students to hold off on articles — so when he encouraged her to delay this story because of the new information, she took his advice seriously.

From there, Colaku dug into additional reporting to find out more: She spoke with a source on background and corroborated what her original source told her with others. She also consulted district climate surveys that detailed tensions within the district, she explained in both her article and an interview.

With the additional information she gained through her reporting, she said she decided to move forward with attempting to publish the story in the edition published this week.

But in a March 27 memo to Colaku, Occhino said he was vetoing publication of the article because it included “confidential personnel information,” relied on anonymous sources to confirm that information and was not able to include a “‘balanced’ picture” because the school board declined to comment.

Additionally, the article included references to “personnel issues which are protected from public disclosure under New Jersey law” and therefore did not meet “applicable legal standards and responsibilities,” the principal said in the memo.

In place of the original story, Colaku wrote a story for this week’s edition that explained the process by which the story was censored. (Administrators let most of the story about censorship run unchanged, adviser John Wodnick said. The only thing that was taken out of that story was a reference to the title of the original piece, he said. That headline, according to the memo from Occhino to Colaku, was “Supervisors Made Allegations Against Superintendent John Keenan.”)

Principal Joseph Occhino and district attorney James Plosia declined to comment on the situation. Both deferred to board president Barbara Garand, who declined to comment because the Fling’s appeal is pending before the board. Garand said she’s meeting with Colaku on Tuesday to discuss the issue.

Superintendent John Keenan did not respond to a request for comment.

In the story about the censored article, Colaku notes that while she did use anonymous sources in her reporting, “much of the article is based on quotes extracted from public statements made at [school board] meetings.” Moreover, she wrote, the district’s policy does not specifically state that personnel issues are off-limits for discussion in student publications.

Under the school’s prior review policy, outlined in a copy of The Highland Fling’s staff manual, the principal must review each edition of the paper before publication. The policy outlines potential violations that might result in censored content and stipulates, “Issues on which opposing points of view have been responsibly promoted may be introduce in a school sponsored publication provided that all proponents are given an equal opportunity to present their views.”

If the principal finds any potential violations when reviewing the paper, he has two school days to articulate his objections — if he fails to do so, according to the policy, “the publication must be released for distribution.”

The principal can’t censor a student publication “merely because it is personally offensive to the reviewer or may tend to embarrass the Board,” and students are supposed to have the chance to change any content that’s found to be in violation of district policy.

The staff accepts the prior review process as a necessary burden but makes no secret of its objections to it. A copy of the staff manual updated in 2012 describes the policy as “harmful to [the Fling’s] mission.” The rules teach student journalists “bad habits of not exercising their 1st Amendment rights” and risk breeding “mistrust on the part of readers and laziness on the part of [the newspaper’s] staff,” the handbook reads. (Wodnick said these views still generally describe the current crop of students’ feelings toward prior review.)

In the past, Wodnick said students were usually able to work out any conflicts that came up during prior review and it hasn’t been necessary to invoke the need for a written explanation.

Wodnick said the staff has been asked to change content in the past, but they’ve “never been in a situation where an entire story had just been cut out of the paper.” He declined to comment on whether he agrees with the decision to censor, stressing that he prefers to let students “speak for themselves.”

After Colaku sought assistance through the Student Press Law Center’s legal hotline, Executive Director Frank LoMonte said he sent a letter to the district attorney explaining why he believes it’s not legal to withhold a story because it involves a personnel issue.

Beyond the assertion that discussion of personnel issues should prevent the story from being published, LoMonte said, the district’s argument regarding “balance” is also problematic.

“It’s always questionable to veto a story based on lack of balance when one side refuses to comment, but it’s doubly questionable when the side refusing to comment [is the] side doing the censoring,” LoMonte said.

Colaku said she might try to publish her original story through another outlet, and she is also weighing legal action against the district on the grounds that officials violated her First Amendment rights. She stands by her decision to publish a story about the censorship and to attempt to publish the story about the initial issues. As a student journalist, she said, it’s her duty to inform readers.

And beyond that, she said, “If you don’t take a stance on something you believe in, no one else will.”

By Casey McDermott, SPLC staff writer. Contact McDermott by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 123.