Pulitzer Prize-winner Barton Gellman recounts his censorship battle in high school

Barton Gellman has won three Pulitzer Prizes for his investigative reporting at the Washington Post — for covering the National Security Agency disclosures by Edward Snowden, reporting on Vice President Dick Cheney and covering the Sept. 11 attacks and their aftermath.

But almost 40 years ago, in 1979, he was a reporting intern for the Student Press Law Center. And before that, in 1977, he was the editor-in-chief of The Town Crier at Washington High School in Philadelphia. That year, he took his school to court over the principal’s confiscation of an issue of the newspaper that featured stories about birth control and teen pregnancy.

The principal fired Gellman and the Town Crier’s other editors, closed their office and shut the paper down, Gellman said at the SPLC’s 40th anniversary event in October 2014.

“You’re jobless, keyless and paperless. Who are you going to call?” Gellman said, as a presentation screen flashed to the Ghostbusters logo. “No, no, you’re going to call the SPLC.”

Gellman called the Student Press Law Center, which set him up with a lawyer — from the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. That October, Gellman and his co-editors sued his school.

“I found out something in those last few days of October,” he said. “It’s not that I was especially brave, I really wasn’t. It’s not exactly that I knew we were right — I did know that, I thought I did, but being right isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. What I found out is that I’m really stubborn. I found out that I’m allergic to arbitrary orders by people who think they’re accountable to no one. And if I’m going to be honest, my ego was on the line. I didn’t want to see myself as a lemming. I didn’t want to see myself as a lemming, I didn’t want to say yes ma’am and march myself off the cliff with my constitutional rights.”

Ultimately, Gellman received his job as editor back, and the Town Crier was given the right to distribute the newspapers. But, the papers had since been burnt by the principal and Gellman was in college. Later, Gellman learned that the principal had implemented a policy of prior review at the high school.

Still, Gellman said, “it was a fight worth fighting, regardless of outcome. In fact, even an outcome like this could fuel a whole career.”

For the whole story — and the surprising end, when Gellman reconnects with his high school principal almost 40 years later — see the below video: