P.E. staff P.O.'d: Albemarle High School censors op-ed
In Texas, a high school newspaper's last issue was pulled because of an editorial advocating legalization of marijuana. In Fredericksburg, the Massaponax High yearbook was reprinted because of anonymous confessions of sex and drug use. And even in the land of Jefferson, Albemarle High School has pulled the last issue of its student newspaper.
The controversy? An editorial suggesting cost-saving changes to the state's physical education requirements and letting student athletes opt out of P.E. classes.
"The reason they decided not to let us publish was because they felt it would be disruptive to physical education classes," says Sean Cudahy, outgoing editor-in-chief of The Revolution whose last issue was scheduled to come out May 20.
"The principal grabbed one," says Cudahy, "showed it to the P.E. teachers, and they didn't like it.
Cudahy, citing the 1988 student newspaper case, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, says that administrators can censor publications due to "legitimate pedagogical concerns," says Cudahy. What he doesn't understand is how an editorial questioning the curriculum could be considered disruptive. And to make sure he understood Hazelwood, he called the Student Press Law Center, and spoke to attorney Adam Goldstein, who's worked at the center since 2003 and says he's seen thousands of student censorship cases.
"This has got to be one of the goofiest I've ever seen–- it's not even controversial," says Goldstein. "Nobody thinks making the star quarterback play dodgeball teaches them a damn thing."
The Revolution's adviser, Kim Aust, says there were a lot of reasons behind her decision to pull the issue, including the principal's offer to reprint without the alleged offending editorial. She also notes typographical errors in the story, including a misspelling in the headline: "Students' P.E. groans might be warrented."
"If I have to go to court about a story, I'm not going with one that has misspelled words," she says.
Cudahy confirms that there were typos that he, as editor, was responsible for, but says, "When I was in that meeting, that wasn't the reason for holding the issue." And Aust concurs.
"It was a disruption to the educational process," says Aust, "not because of the students but a huge disruption to the P.E. teachers. They came up yelling at me. They emailed. They said they weren't going to be able to conduct class."
Aust suggests the P.E. teachers had a litany of complaints about the editorial, and pointed out that if it appeared in the last issue of the year, then they wouldn't have an opportunity to respond. That's why she decided to pull the editorial and run a news article in August on the topic, and she says she already has student reporters working on that.
Principal Jay Thomas left the decision to pull the editorial to Aust, but clearly favored that decision. "He asked me repeatedly to not distribute it," says Aust. "The results were not going to be good. It was the P.E. teachers. They were very upset."
And she calls the censored editorial "a good learning experience" for the student journalists.
The head of the Albemarle P.E. department, Terry Midolo, did not respond to phone calls from the Hook.
"I am sorry the P.E. teachers found it offensive," says the article's author who is also the incoming editor-in-chief, Ellie Leech.
"The fact is, it was an editorial," says Leech. "It was my opinion."
And she thinks calling the editorial a "disruption" goes too far. "If I'd called for quitting P.E. or made a personal attack, that would be called for, but I didn't and I wouldn't."
Leech recalls her first year of journalism class, and learning about student rights, and that articles had to be a "material disruption" to be censorship-worthy. "I do think my rights were violated," she says.
John Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute, agrees, and says the axing of the editorial "tips the line on viewpoint discrimination," which he says the Supreme Court has ruled a no-no.
"This stifles free speech, stifles creativity, and promotes conformity," he says. And if school policy is that you can't criticize curriculum or the school or teachers, says Whitehead, it has to be a written policy.
"This is censorship," he reiterates. "This is a government institution. You'd think they'd want to uphold free speech."
"If you ask do we censor student opinion," says Principal Thomas, "no, because I value the input of students."
And he insists that Aust did the right thing in pulling the paper. "Her job as adviser is to maintain the quality of the publication and standards and to better address issues."
"It's a tough line for a newspaper adviser to follow," says Albemarle schools spokeswoman Maury Brown, who notes that the multiple typographical errors "didn't reflect well on the paper."
Brown describes the incident as "a lesson where students can see the power of the media."
Cudahy, who is going to American University to study journalism, and Leech have posted the editorial on Facebook. And both students speak favorably of their adviser and school principal, despite their disappointment in the decision.
"As a newspaper, it's not our job to be cheerleaders and make everyone happy," says Leech. "Our job is to be fair and balanced, to inform and entertain. The school newspaper is an important component of student experience."