The administration at Elizabethtown Area High School is legally within its rights to tell the staff of the student newspaper what to include in the publication and what to leave out. But that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.
Elizabethtown Area High School junior Nathaniel McCloud, a co-editor of the student newspaper Elizabethtown Expression, gave his account of events to the Lancaster newspaper LNP. Expression reporters had interviewed newly elected school board members. Mr. McCloud told LNP that Expression reporters wanted to include a quote from one new board member in response to a statement from another, but Principal Maura Hobson said the quote in response must be removed. Mrs. Hobson said the paper was trying to “stir the pot” by inciting conflict between board members, according to Mr. McCloud’s account. He also said the principal told him that she could eliminate the newspaper club and the school newspaper altogether if she chooses.
Is Mr. McCloud’s account accurate? There’s no reason to doubt it. Mrs. Hobson declined to comment to LNP. School district spokesman Troy Portser emailed LNP to say Mr. McCloud has a “right to share his thoughts and we applaud him.” After LNP’s story was published, the Advocate asked Mr. Portser if the school district had anything to add; he replied, “Thanks for checking. We have no comment as a district.” The school district has had multiple opportunities to dispute Mr. McCloud’s account of events and has chosen not to do so.
In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that school officials can exercise control over high school newspapers when the school’s action is “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” So presumably the school had the legal authority to do what Mr. McCloud said it did.
But the fact that something is legal doesn’t make it right. The Advocate made a promise to the high school paper’s staff when the high school paper began to appear as a page in the Advocate. That promise was that the students’ work would appear without interference from the Advocate unless there was a legal problem or an issue of bad taste. The Advocate kept that promise, interfering only once when there was a problem with copyright law. This promise was based on the idea that students will have to make mistakes in order to learn from them.
So, what can the students do now? The ability of the school administration to tell the student newspaper not to include certain things is based on the fact that the newspaper is affiliated with the school and school resources are used to produce it. But what if the students decide to put out a paper that isn’t affiliated with the school and doesn’t use school resources in its production?
The technical aspects are challenging, butnot overwhelming. The Elizabethtown Advocate was started by one man who had quit his job at The Associated Press in Philadelphia. With one desktop computer and a free desktop publishingprogram called Scribus, the Advocate came out every week for seven years until its sale to a division of Steinman Communications, which also publishes LNP. If a crusty old journeyman could do this on his own, surely a group of tech-savvy teens can download Scribus and figure out how to use it.
From there, it’s largely a matter of finding a place to do this. Why not ask the Etownian, the student newspaper at Elizabethtown College, to share its office space? Or if that won’t work, why not bring some laptop computers to those big tables in the Elizabethtown Public Library?
Yes, it is true that the school administration can tell a school-affiliated paper not to include certain things. But it cannot do that with an independent publication. If the students decide to go independent, not only will Elizabethtown school officials likely regret the overreach, but school officials elsewhere will see it as a cautionary example of what happens when schools don’t respect student journalists’ editorial decisions.