Philadelphia high school student faces death threats, criticism over controversial column

PENNSYLVANIA — Michael Moroz knew he might receive some criticism for a student newspaper column critical of race-related protests. But he didn’t expect the criticism to come with a police escort.

After facing death threats and a firestorm of criticism from students and alumni over an opinion article critical of sit-ins and hunger strikes at the University of Missouri, the Central High School senior now walks from class to class with school police. He has retained an attorney for advice and to help him with media coverage of the situation.

“It’s not exactly comfortable walking (around) with a school police officer,” Moroz said.

The column, titled “A Case of Overreaction” and published in December in the Philadelphia school newspaper, The Centralizer, argues that protests at the University of Missouri were an overreaction to a number of racially charged controversies on campus. Moroz’s column was published next to an opinion article that supported the demonstrations.

In another part of the article, Moroz also addressed the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American young man who was shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.

“Brown was, at worst, justifiably killed, and at best, a thug,” Moroz wrote in the article.

Although the article first appeared in the print edition of The Centralizer, Moroz said it was not until the article was posted on Dec. 27 on the school newspaper website — and featured on their Facebook page — that students and alumni alike began to comment.

“That’s when the threats really started coming in,” Moroz said.

Some of the social media comments turned threatening, with one commenter calling on people to “shoot” Moroz, while another said people who liked the article “need to be dealt with.” Another commenter threatened to “drag Moroz by his satchel.” While the threats are no longer as frequent, Moroz said he continues to receive visceral comments daily.

After one day online, student editors removed Moroz’s article from the newspaper website and posted a message on their Facebook page addressing the decision.

“If an article comes across as insensitive, and the Central community would rather have it taken down because of this, then an article will be taken down,” staff members said in the Facebook message. Centralizer editors did not respond to the Student Press Law Center’s request for comment.

Moroz said it felt like the paper did not support him or his article. He also said the Facebook message set a bad precedent for the newspaper.

Student editors, Moroz said, censored his piece from the website. It can now only be found in the PDF file of the print edition that contained his original article.

Fernando Gallard, spokesman for the School District of Philadelphia, said the article was not censored and can still be found online, as well as in the print editions which are still at the school.

“It’s 100 percent published,” Gallard said.

Now, Moroz said he has been all but stripped of his title as managing editor and no longer has access to the website or the newspaper email account. He is no longer allowed to post or edit articles and can only do assignments his fellow editors assign him, Moroz said.

“Now he’s basically a managing editor in name only,” said Jordan Rushie, Moroz’s attorney.

A debate on ‘diversity of ideas’

To Moroz, the death threats and censorship represent a larger cultural problem at Central.

“The overall environment is not one that fosters any kind of diversity of thought,” Moroz said.

Moroz said teachers and students encourage more liberal viewpoints and there is little room at Central to express other opinions without facing a backlash.

Rushie said school administrators should be teaching students how to handle people they disagree with instead of infantilizing them by removing content that is upsetting. He said students should be able to criticize, but should not be able to censor content they disagree with.

“Diversity means a lot of things,” Rushie said. “But it also means a diversity of ideas.”

In response to the incident, Gallard said Central President Timothy McKenna has scheduled a special advisory program with students for later this month to discuss freedom of speech, Moroz’s article and how to respond to opinions in a responsible manner, especially on social media.

While he’s happy the school has scheduled the program, Moroz said the fact that the administration is addressing it shows there is a problem.

“It’s just remarkable that it has to be done,” Moroz said.

Still, Gallard said students at Central come from a wide array of backgrounds and have a variety of beliefs and views.

“These are kids that are proud of being open-minded,” Gallard said.

The administration’s response

With threats on his life, Moroz argues school administration should have been more supportive of his situation. Moroz said school administrators should have immediately sent out a school-wide email making clear that any threats would be punished by the Philadelphia School District’s Code of Student Conduct.

Rushie also said the school should be doing more to enforce the code of conduct, which has policies on bullying, threats and harassment. The code defines threats as “aggressive verbal or written language or gestures directed towards a student and/or school community member.” According to the code, students responsible for threatening students or staff with aggravated assault can face suspension, lateral transfer or disciplinary school assignment.

“The school is not applying the handbook, and the handbook should apply to everybody,” Rushie said.

Rushie said he does not want to stop criticism on the article, but wants to ensure Moroz has a safe learning environment at Central.

Gallard said school administration have punished students as a result of their social media comments. He also said students who did make threatening comments were referred to the Philadelphia Police Department.

“Our principal has taken the appropriate disciplinary actions,” Gallard said.

While he has thought about leaving Central, Moroz said he does not want to transfer from the school he has invested so much time in — and, he said, “it would basically be me giving them what they want.”

SPLC staff writer Ryan Tarinelli can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6318.

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