After stalling vote, New Jersey high school's publications policy remains unclear

NEW JERSEY — A week after postponing votes on a new student publications policy, which would have given administrators editorial control and barred students from using anonymous sources and from appealing censorship, Northern Highlands Regional Board of Education officials have not released details on what will happen to the proposal.

The board postponed the vote Oct. 6 after members received letters from the American Society of News Editors and the Student Press Law Center, objecting to the power the policy gives administrators. The ASNE letter told the board members to remove ASNE’s outdated Canons of Journalism from the policy and that it was inappropriate to use the guidelines in the district’s regulations. The SPLC letter said approving the policy is a “sanctionable act of misconduct” and summarized problems with the policy.

While Interim Superintendent John Petrelli told The Star-Ledger a new policy is imminent, the board postponed the vote in order to hear an opinion from the teachers union.

Petrelli did not return phone calls and emails requesting an interview. Brian Belluzzi, president of Northern Highlands teachers union, declined to comment on what district officials are doing with the policy and who’s involved.

In March 2014, Adelina Colaku, a reporter at the Highland Fling, the student newspaper at Northern Highlands Regional High School, submitted a story about conflicts between Superintendent John Keenan and administrators. The Principal, Joseph Occhino, spiked the story because the article contained personnel information, used anonymous sources and was not “balanced” because the superintendent and board members chose not to comment.

Colaku appealed the principal’s decision and sent two revised drafts to the board. The board approved the article for publication on June 9, and Occhino approved it June 12.

The policy, which the board approved on first reading Sept. 22, said the district “may exercise editorial control over the style and content of student expression in school-sponsored publications.” Students don’t have the absolute right to appeal censorship decisions to the superintendent and board under the policy, and the board may choose to accept an appeal “if it deems such review necessary or desirable.”

Students can use anonymous sources under the proposed policy after a student gives the adviser the source’s name and contact information and the adviser evaluates the source for “credibility” and “motive.”

The proposed policy requires the adviser and students to follow the ASNE’s 1923 Canons of Journalism, which was revised and renamed In 1975.

In his letter, ASNE President of the Board of Directors Christopher Peck said he hopes the school district didn’t propose new regulations in response, “direct or indirect,” to the controversy involving the Highland Fling.

“We can only envision use of these proposed regulations, including our Statement of Principles, to censor the students ASNE is dedicated to cultivating as the next generation of journalists,” he said in the letter.

Peck’s letter said the district should remove the 1923 Canons of Journalism from the policy because it “no longer exists” and the ASNE website only shows the revised document. Additionally, Peck said the school district should not use their 1975 Statement of Principles, “a document dedicated to the First Amendment,” in the proposed policy because the policy “violates the very constitutional rights that amendment protects,” according to the letter.

“The First Amendment, protecting freedom of expression from abridgment by any law, guarantees to the people through their press a constitutional right,” according to the 1975 Statement of Principles. The 1923 Canons of Journalism does not refer to the First Amendment by name, but both versions include an article on freedom of the press.

ASNE hopes the district will consult the association about the district’s “misappropriation of our aspirational guidelines,” according to the letter. Kevin Goldberg, ASNE’s legal counsel, said no one from the district has contacted the ASNE.

Garand did not return an email requesting an interview. Secretary for the board, Jim Davis, and Highland Fling Adviser John Kaminski did not return phone and email requests for comment. Alison Peebles, the Highland Fling’s editor-in-chief, declined to comment.

In his letter, Frank LoMonte, the SPLC’s executive director, highlighted the “most obvious flaws” in the proposal: requiring advisers to evaluate anonymous sources, removing students’ right to appeal school censorship decisions and requiring students to follow the 1923 Canons of Journalism.

Advisers are district employees and would be compelled to disclose the name of an anonymous source to an administrator. Professional standards in journalism education do not include an adviser’s evaluation of anonymous sources, LoMonte said in the letter.

“Each member of this board acts at significant legal jeopardy in continuing down the path of harassment of and retaliation against blameless students for providing a public service,” LoMonte said in the letter.

SPLC staff writer Anna Schiffbauer can be reached by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.