Pennsylvania school newspaper censored after school board member condemns homosexuality and teaching evolution

PENNSYLVANIA — The future of Elizabethtown Area High School’s student newspaper may be at risk after the school’s principal censored a portion of a recent interview with a school board member.

Nathaniel McCloud, a senior at EAHS and the editor-in-chief of the Elizabethtown Expression, said the issue arose after the paper conducted interviews with new members of the school board. In December, the Expression ran an interview with two school board members, including Menno Riggleman, who made comments saying that homosexuality is a sin and referring to teaching Darwinism as outdated. Those comments were published on the newspaper’s website.

In January, the paper tried to run an interview with another school board member, Michael Martin, who was asked to respond to Riggleman’s comments. The school’s principal, Maura Hobson, said the response must be removed. McCloud said Hobson threatened to dissolve the newspaper club if they protested the decision.

“She told us that the story wasn’t…an issue in the public or on the school board, so it was irrelevant, and we shouldn’t be covering it,” McCloud said. “[She said] we were attempting to stir the pot, it was us trying to cause trouble, and that if we challenged the school’s decision to censor any of our stories, or continued to report unfavorably, then they were going to eliminate the newspaper club.”

McCloud wrote a letter to the district superintendent, but she referred down to the principal’s decision. Director of School and Community Information Troy Portser, speaking on behalf of Hobson and the district, declined to comment.

The Pennsylvania Administrative Code has a section on student freedom of expression. Section 12.9 states that school officials are able to remove obscene or libelous content and edit material that may cause a substantial disruption to school activities. The code specifies that “school officials may not censor or restrict material simply because it is critical of the school or its administration.”

The Expression is subject to a prior review process, McCloud said, though the administration did not review the December issue where Riggleman’s comments were published. The students weren’t aware that the deadline to submit was moved up because of Christmas, so they did not get the administration’s approval before sending the issue to the publisher.

Still, the quote remains uncensored online

McCloud said Martin’s response, which was censored, was relatively uncontroversial.

“He was saying that he supported Riggleman’s right to say his opinion and speak his mind, but that, as a school board member, he wouldn’t vote on any changes to curriculum. He’d leave that to the teachers,” McCloud said.

The newspaper decided not take any action against Hobson or the district, McCloud said, fearing the club would be dissolved. McCloud decided to contact a few local newspapers about the story.

“I think it’s important that the public knows about this, even if the newspaper itself isn’t responding directly,” he said.

Several newspapers in the area reported on the situation and wrote editorials in support of the students. McCloud said he’s received words of encouragement from teachers, members at his church and others since the story started gaining local attention.

McCloud said he didn’t know if Hobson would have eliminated the club, but it’s doubtful now that the story is public.

“Now that I’ve contacted media and there’s public attention on the issue, I don’t think there’s any way to do it,” he said. “If they cut the newspaper, there would be significant negative attention.”

SPLC staff writer Taylor Potter can be reached by email or at (202) 478-1926. He is on Twitter @wmtaylorpotter.

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