Mount Si editors suspend school paper after principal's claim of prior review
November 5, 2008 · Updated 10:04 AM
Editors of Mount Si High School’s student newspaper and Principal Randy Taylor meet this week as they try to reconcile their views on the limits of free expression at the school.
Student editors suspended publication of Cat Tales after Taylor notified journalism teacher Susan Holihan that the phrase “open forum” must be removed from the newspaper’s masthead. According to school district policy, the student paper is a limited forum, Taylor said in an interview.
The principal also notified Holihan that he intended to exercise his right to prior review of the paper as provided by school district policy.
The policy, last revised in 1993, states, “The principal may request to review any copy prior to its publication,” and is similar to that of many other districts in Washington.
The student editors say that Cat Tales has for years operated as an open forum not subject to prior review, and should continue as such. Editors Julie Censullo and Sean Byrnes have brought their concerns before the school board twice, arguing that the policies inhibit students’ right to free expression, and the journalists’ ability to practice journalism with real-life applications.
“It’s not a student-run paper. Even if they don’t always censor, we’re being filtered through, and we’re still seen as a newsletter from the principal,” Censullo said.
Byrnes said administrators decided to enact prior review because they took issue with some content published last year that included “mild profanity” and tackled controversial topics.
“They told us their main objective was to avoid controversy,” Byrnes said.
Taylor, who is in his fourth year as principal at Mount Si, said he has requested prior review this academic year because he only became aware of the district policy over the summer.
Taylor said he understands the paper’s role in writing about “the controversial aspects of the school, not necessarily as a way to foment opinion, but to drive some conversation, to help our learning community grow,” and would only censor material that falls out of line with district rules.
“There were very few examples of last year’s editions of Cat Tales where I would exercise my administrative prerogative by making comment on certain articles,” he said.
“The vast majority of them, 90 percent of them, even in articles where they were critical of the administration or the high school — I would have said, ‘Well, that’s the right of the free press, to be critical.’”
He did take exception to the publishing of profanity in opinion articles, and said that had he been aware last year of his right to prior review, he would have exercised it then.
The editors aren’t convinced that the administration suddenly enacting the policies after more than a decade of inaction is justified.
They’re concerned administrators will reach beyond their authority, particularly after “they told us columns with a tone of pessimism or cynicism are off-limits,” Censullo said.
Byrnes said the administration’s argument that some of the content published last year was not age-appropriate is bogus.
“They’ve got to understand that high schoolers use more profanity than anyone else, using different words, experimenting with words,” he said.
“It was far from what the Supreme Court would actually consider profanity,” Censullo added.
At this point in the year, Cat Tales would typically have put out three issues. This year, the class of nine students has produced no papers. Until the administration and editors get through the impasse, journalism students are practicing most aspects of the profession — conducting interviews, writing and editing articles — without publishing a paper.
The editors feel that putting out the paper under prior review “would be a disrespect to the students at Mount Si if we’re not allowed to have a place where they can facilitate ideas,” Byrnes said.
Censullo and Byrnes planned to propose options to the administration that would eliminate prior review, but create avenues such as an editorial board through which the editors could vet the appropriateness of their content.
Byrnes said he would ultimately like to see the district change its prior review policy.
When the students raised the issue at the Oct. 9 and Oct. 23 school board meetings, Superintendent Joel Aune told them they were at the wrong forum, and must continue conversations at the building level.
According to district procedures, if students’ complaints cannot be resolved at the building level with the school administration, the school superintendent could seek legal counsel, and the school board could consider the complaint at a regular meeting. However, district policy does not clearly stipulate at what point — after how many meetings — complaints may be brought to the board and superintendent.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that school administrators can control what appears in student newspapers, but laws in several states ban censorship of student publications.
State Rep. Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines, plans, for a third time, to introduce a bill that would prohibit school officials from censoring student publications. Districts would have no legal liability for the publications, and students would be responsible for the content.
Barring changes in policy or law, however, Taylor said he intended to enforce prior review.
“I think the policy is sound and effective and workable,” he said.