NEW JERSEY— Pemberton Township High School removed Bill Gurden as adviser to the school’s newspaper, The Stinger, in 2014. Now, Gurden is suing the Pemberton Township Board of Education for violating his civil rights.
In mid-September, Gurden filed a complaint with the Burlington County Superior Court alleging the actions were “taken with maliciousness, intentional desire to cause [him] harm.”
Gurden declined to comment, referring questions to his lawyer. Gurden’s lawyer sent the complaint in lieu of an interview.
The problem originated in 2013, according to the complaint. That December, Principal Ida Smith censored two articles in the student-produced Stinger as part of a prior-review policy adopted in 2010, after the publication of an article regarding public displays of affection.
Smith objected to an article about the district athletic director’s departure and an opinion piece about the increase in the number of students smoking. According to the complaint, Smith demanded as a condition to publishing the stories that two sentences be removed from the athletic-director article and that the column about smoking he altered to include comments from Smith and to delete a quote from a security guard saying that smoking on campus was worse than the year before.
Following the administration’s censorship of the two articles, the student journalists sought to investigate high school newspaper censorship in general, but Smith stopped that article’s publication as well, saying it was “inappropriate,” the complaint said.
The student journalists had contacted the Student Press Law Center, and the SPLC and the Burlington County Times both published articles about the censorship. Smith and district superintendent Michael Gorman met with Gurden and told him to tell the students to stop, which Gurden refused to do, according to the complaint.
Eventually, the Stinger was allowed to publish censored versions of all three articles. But before the final article was published in June 2014, Gurden was on his way out as adviser following yet another controversy.
In May, students decided to upload a digital copy of an approved issue of the Stinger to Issuu, an online pdf distribution application. Smith had not given explicit permission to distribute the content online.
Gurden received a disciplinary letter. Smith accused Gurden of insubordination. She then removed him from his position as adviser, replacing him with a first-year teacher. She also canceled his journalism courses, citing low enrollment in the classes. Gurden lost $4,600 a year, the stipend he received as adviser, but remained employed as an English teacher.
For the first time in his career at PTHS, Gurden was not allowed to teach any advanced classes. Gurden has worked at the school since 2006 and is still there.
This past January, Gurden inquired if journalism courses would be restored for the 2015-16 academic year. He was informed that he did not hold the proper certification to teach journalism, a certification that does not exist in New Jersey.
Smith, the PTHS principal, declined to comment due to the ongoing litigation.
Gurden, who claims that this has caused him economic and reputational harm as well as emotional suffering, is requesting reinstatement and all equitable back pay and front pay, as well as his disciplinary records to be expunged.
Contact SPLC staff writer Corey Conner at 202-974-6318 or by email.