High school paper censored for “offensive” headline on story about district’s lack of diversity

This is the former cover of the Feb. 13 issue of The Bruin. The students had to reprint the paper and take out the words “in a white school district.” Photo courtesy of Halle Shaeffer

OHIO — Wadsworth High School’s student paper, The Bruin, sparked district-wide controversy and conversations about racism with their Feb. 13 story “Black History Month in a White School District.” Some praised the coverage for bringing attention to the lack of diversity in the district, while others said the headline discounted the experiences of the already underrepresented students of color in the district. The superintendent removed the issue from the stands, and had students reprint the cover.

The staff of The Bruin worked on their February issue for weeks, and even had it reviewed by the principal prior to publication. The night the issue came out, Superintendent Andy Hill apologized for the headline on the district’s Facebook page, saying “a number” of minority students complained that the cover story’s headline was exclusionary. The next day, he removed the issues from stands, and made students reprint the cover page, replace the old one, and redistribute the issue.

“At that point, I didn’t really know what was going on,” The Bruin Editor-in-Chief Halle Shaeffer said. “I hadn’t heard that students or parents were upset, so really to me it was a shock. It was really disappointing to see the superintendent was putting the blame on us when the principal reviewed it beforehand.”

Shaeffer said everyone on the nearly all-white staff was “pretty disheartened” because, in their eyes, this was the best issue they’d put out, and it was overshadowed by controversy over a headline. She said The Bruin had to pay the $200 expense of reprinting using their ad revenue, although she doesn’t think it will hurt the publication in the long run.

Staff Writer Emily Brandyberry said it was wrong for the superintendent to apologize without first telling the staff, and that administration should’ve paid for the reprinted front cover instead of making the paper pay for it.

“It really is one of those situations where I think the school just entirely overreacted to this. It was very disturbing that they required the change of headline,” Student Press Law Center’s Senior Legal Counsel Mike Hiestand said. “Then, the superintendent issued an apology on behalf of the newspaper, which was entirely inappropriate. If [The Bruin] wanted to apologize they would’ve done it themselves.”

Schaeffer said initially The Bruin staff was unaware of students’ concerns over the headline, but once the students spoke with them, most agreed the headline was problematic — they were just upset they didn’t get to make the call to change it themselves.

They ended up taking out the words “in a white school district,” so the headline simply said “Black History Month.”

(On the left is the original cover of the Feb. 13 issue of The Bruin. The students had to reprint the paper and take out the words “in a white school district.” Image courtesy of Halle Shaeffer)

Hill said the intention was not to censor the student journalists, but to avoid offending students of color with the headline.

“Our Bruin students did an outstanding job on an article that was reflective of the experience of minority students in the school district,” Hill said. “What caused concern was that after the edition was released, some of the minority students in the community were offended because they thought the headline was exclusionary, which is ironic because the whole point of the article was to bring to light and awareness to this problem in the administration.”

The article pointed out that minorities accounted for only 7% of the district’s student population, and that there are no black teachers or administrators at Wadsworth. After the issue was published and removed, The Garage Ministry, a youth ministry, organized a panel discussion titled “Is Wadsworth Racist?

There were seven people on the panel, six of whom were people of color: Two current students (including the only white person on the panel), one former student, and four parents. The former student, Jordan Taylor, said her dad sent her the Bruin article.

“I was so interested and I was honestly just very impressed, and it sparked a lot of conversations I had [within] myself about being at Wadsworth High School,” Taylor said.

Laurie Beal, site director at The Garage said her son, who is black, was one of the Wadsworth High students offended by the headline, and she agreed with him. 

“I would say as a mom of a black son, the headline is excluding,” Beal said at the discussion. “But I think the article itself, I want to be clear … I think it was a great conversation starter. I think the gal that wrote it talked about some tough stuff, which I’m all about.”

The Garage conducted an informal survey ahead of the panel, asking respondents about race in Wadsworth. Only 7% of the respondents were non-white, and the majority of the attendees were also white — which is consistent with Wadsworth’s population. The last question on the survey asked whether respondents thought The Bruin’s headline was inclusive or exclusive. Here’s how the results of the 176 responses broke down:

  • 53.8%: “It Depends”
  • 28.65%: “Exclusive”
  • 17.54%: “Inclusive”

Aniya Harris, one of the students quoted in The Bruin’s article, said she didn’t think the headline was racist or excluded people of color. She said the superintendent’s reaction initially drew attention away from the concerns students raised in the article.

“I thought it discouraged the students, especially the author of the article,” Harris said. “I thought that by taking them down and because it was all based on the headline, no one actually took the time to read the article at first.”

A ‘massive overreaction’

Hiestand said the steps Hill took were an overreaction because the story was solid and the  headline wasn’t libelous or otherwise unlawful. It could have  handled it in a much milder way.

“I think it was a wonderful learning opportunity that was missed,’” Hiestand said. “… It was pretty basic stuff. They should’ve asked ‘Do we really have a problem and what’s the responsible way to deal with it?’ The appropriate thing would’ve been to take a deep breath.”

The Bruin’s adviser, Eric Heffinger, said he understands Hill’s decision to apologize.

“Most of us sort of agreed after students came forward to us that the headline was a problem that needed to be fixed, so I understand where my superintendent was coming from,” Heffinger said. “I just think he was flooded with phone calls and needed to respond. I even got phone calls … You don’t get cussed out on a normal day.”

(Staff of Wadsworth High School’s The Bruin)

Hill said he recognizes everyone is entitled to their opinion, but if given the chance, he wouldn’t have done anything differently. He said he doesn’t think students should’ve been forced to see the headline around campus.

“I understand there’s this whole censorship and we work really hard to have students’ freedom of expression, but even with all the factors surrounding that, I don’t think I would’ve done anything different,” Hill said.

Hill admitted he wished the timing were different. He sent out the Facebook and email apology at night, so he said he didn’t have the chance to speak with The Bruin beforehand.

I understand there’s this whole censorship … but even with all the factors surrounding that, I don’t think I would’ve done anything different

But Heffinger said he’s thankful for this whole experience because it’s led to further conversation and learning.

“It’s been an interesting month … I’m glad we’re having these important conversations like the First Amendment,” Heffinger said. “I think 100 percent it drew more attention to the story and we’re having more conversations about [race] than if it never happened in the first place.”

The Hazelwood problem

The Bruin is self-funded through donations and advertisements, but it is also taught as a class, which means the publication is “school-sponsored media,” Hiestand said.

That means it’s subject to the Hazelwood standard. In Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988) the U.S. Supreme Court expanded the authority school administrators have over school-sponsored publications, allowing them to censor student journalists under circumstances they interpret broadly.

“The problem that we have is that it’s a Hazelwood publication. Under Hazelwood, school officials have a great deal of leeway,” Hiestand said. “They claimed that the headline was inappropriate, and under Hazelwood, inappropriate language can be censored.”

So, the censorship was legal, according to Hiestand, and there isn’t much The Bruin could’ve done. He said the situation is unusual, though. 

This is a pretty outrageous example of jumping to the most extreme form of censorship

“This is a pretty outrageous example of jumping to the most extreme form of censorship. Thankfully we don’t see it very much, at least not to this extent,” Hiestand said.

Prior review is common in many high schools.

Wadsworth has a prior review policy that says the advisor and principal have to review the issue’s content before it’s published, Wadsworth High School’s Principal Steven Moore said. But, to Moore and Hill’s knowledge, the administration has never taken the papers off the stands and reprinted before.

Moore said he makes sure the paper is “school appropriate” every month. The students said Moore typically flags expletives in quotes, but has never pulled an entire story from an issue.

No New Voices

Although the censorship was legal in Ohio, other states have laws preventing this type of reaction from administrators.

Fourteen states have passed New Voices laws that counteract the impact of the Hazelwood decision; the first being California in 1977 and the latest being Washington in 2018. New Voices is a student-driven nonpartisan movement to restore and protect student press rights at the state level. Ohio has never introduced a New Voices bill, but SPLC’s New Voices Advocacy and Campaign Organizer Hillary Davis says she’s working with students in the state to build a coalition.

“Instead of discouraging students from having these very important conversations, a New Voices law would recognize the importance of the student press sparking these conversations,” Davis said.

We’re going to continue to write about important topics and have these tough conversations because that’s what matters

But Hill said the district does recognize the student paper’s importance.

“After everything, we went to speak with The Bruin students,” Hill said. “I wanted them to know they did a great job. We talked about how well written the article was, and how we as a school district could learn from what the students wrote.”

Shaeffer said prior review and this experience with censorship won’t stop The Bruin from doing its job.

“This is really the first thing that’s caused any backlash from administration and, personally, I don’t think this should change the way we run our paper,” Shaeffer said. “We’re going to continue to write about important topics and have these tough conversations because that’s what matters.”

SPLC reporter Cameren Boatner can be reached by email at cboatner@splc.org or by calling 202-974-6317. Follow her on Twitter @camerenboatner

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