New Jersey school board will vote Monday whether to uphold principal's censorship

NEW JERSEY — Once again, members of the Northern Highlands Regional school board are being asked to OK the publication of a story — censored by the student journalist’s principal — concerning grievances filed against the district’s superintendent.

Highland Fling reporter Adelina Colaku appealed the censorship more than a month ago and has submitted two revisions since. The most recent version is scheduled to be voted on at Monday’s board meeting, Colaku said.

Colaku’s story, which she’s been working on for the better part of a year, concerns complaints raised by teachers about the district’s superintendent, John Keenan. Some of the complaints were aired at a school board meeting last June, and Colaku learned of others by cultivating sources in the school, many of whom requested anonymity as a condition of speaking with her.

The use of anonymous sources was one reason the school censored the story, according to a letter from the school’s principal explaining his rationale. Colaku was also told the story was not “balanced” because district administrators declined to comment.

The district’s prior review policy provides censored students an opportunity to appeal the decision to the superintendent and the board of education. Keenan recused himself from the appeal because the article concerned him, Colaku said.

As the dispute persisted, Colaku obtained volunteer legal representation from attorneys Ben Marks, Jonathan Bloom and Jessie Mishkin of the New York office of Weil, Gotshal & Manges through the Student Press Law Center’s attorney referral network.

With her attorneys, Colaku met with two members of the board last month, as well as the board’s attorney, and revised the article based on their concerns.

“I took those suggestions to heart but I obviously did not make all of them,” Colaku said. “I edited the story so that it’s best for my readers, and my readers are not necessarily just the Board of Education. I have the whole school community to write for.”

Some of the changes that resulted after her meeting with the board members improved the story, Colaku said. She was able to get comments from the board’s chairwoman, Barbara Garand, and Keenan agreed to speak with her as well. Colaku said she was happy the two talked with her because she didn’t want the article to be one-sided.

Colaku also went back to her anonymous sources and tried to convince them to speak on the record, but was ultimately unsuccessful. The sources did agree to being identified as teachers at the school, she said. The revised draft included information from the anonymous sources.

After talking with her attorneys and with SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte, Colaku submitted a third draft this week. The most recent version of the story followed an additional interview with Keenan but like the other drafts, relied on some anonymous sources.

Colaku said that while she hopes the board will approve her latest draft, she’s worried the issue over the anonymous sources will remain a sticking point. But “that’s definitely not something I’m willing to compromise,” she said.

Garand, the board’s president, declined to comment.

“As you know, this is an issue concerning confidential personnel issues, thus I cannot speak about it,” Garand wrote in an email.

If the board doesn’t vote to approve Colaku’s article, the reporter said she is considering filing a lawsuit against the district for infringing on her First Amendment rights. Even though she’s graduating, Colaku said she wants to make it easier for other student journalists at the school.

“I really want to give them the opportunity where they don’t have to experience the same paper that I had to, where censorship and prior review prevailed,” she said.

Contact Gregory by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 125.