New Jersey high school reporter’s investigative piece was censored for three months – until SPLC intervened

Northern Highlands Regional High School (2014)

Allendale, N.J.

Adelina Colaku, then editor-in-chief of Northern Highlands Regional’s student newspaper, wrote an article exposing the misconduct of the district’s superintendent that was censored for three months.

“After a year’s worth of battling administrative pressure, and a three months worth of legal negotiation between the Board of Education and I, I was finally able to publish my article. If you are censored, my suggestions are three fold. First, make it your mission to become informed. It’s important to know what your rights are, and where you can solicit legal advice for free. If you don’t know what you’re legally entitled to, then you won’t know how to overcome your illegitimate censorship, or other general infringement on your First Amendment rights. Secondly, pursue your cause, and don’t give up regardless of what people tell you. Chances are, if you’re well informed about your rights, then whatever administrative pressure you are faced with is not factually grounded in nature. Always bear in mind that if you are being threatened by the Board of Education, a school administrator, or even a teacher, that they, as paid providers in an educational institution, serve you — you do not serve them. Lastly, be your own advocate. If your rights are being infringed upon, you have to fight for them because no one else will. If sunlight is the best disinfectant, then you ought to be the sunlight. In other words, be a champion of your own cause by making sure that your voice is heard.”

— Adelina Colaku, then editor-in-chief of the Highland Fling

The Trigger:

Highland Fling editor-in-chief Adelina Colaku wrote an article using several anonymous sources about misconduct complaints lodged against the Northern Highlands Regional superintendent. Colaku refused to reveal the names of her sources, who remained anonymous for fear of losing their jobs and had been initially reluctant to talk to Colaku — she spent five months building relationships with the sources. Legal protection for student journalists protecting their anonymous sources is inconsistent and murky at best.

The school’s reaction

The principal, receiving directions from the Board of Education, rejected Colaku’s story on the grounds that it relied on anonymous sources, contained confidential personnel information and failed to present a “balanced picture” of the issue because the school district declined to comment. However, district policy did not forbid publishing personnel information, and much of Colaku’s story was sourced to school board meetings and corroborated by school climate surveys.

Fighting back

In lieu of the story, Colaku published an article about the censorship of the piece, detailing why it was not being printed. She also appealed the censorship and sought advice from the Student Press Law Center’s attorney referral network. After the school board proposed even more draconian prior review policies, the Student Press Law Center and other free press advocacy organizations sent letters condemning the censorship tactics. Several lawyers from the New York City firm Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP represented Colaku pro bono during a three-month long legal negotiation process with the Board of Education.

End Result

Administrators lifted their censorship and allowed the story to be published three months after its originally intended publication date — and only a couple days before Colaku’s graduation. However, news wasn’t all good: adviser John Wodnick resigned his position after the ordeal, and the school board proposed even sharper prior review policies after the controversy, including a wholesale ban on anonymous sources and a ban on appealing censorship.

What if this happens to you?