The Elizabethtown High School administration has been accused of censoring its student-run newspaper after editors say they were forced to remove a quote from an interview with a school board member.
If students aren’t more careful, Elizabethtown High School student Nathaniel McCloud said, administrators might eliminate the publication altogether.
“The Expression is a longstanding part of the Elizabethtown (Area) School District,” McCloud said of the publication Elizabethtown Expression, which runs monthly in the Elizabethtown Advocate and online at eahsnews.org.
“It’s been a figure in the school for a long time doing important work,” said McCloud, the Expression’s co-editor.
To censor the newspaper, McCloud said, is a violation of students’ rights. But, according to legal experts, free speech can have its limitations in a school setting.
“Is there an issue? Yes,” said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel at the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association. “Can I tell you it’s unconstitutional? I can’t do that.”
McCloud, 17, is a junior at Elizabethtown. He’s been working for the Elizabethtown Expression since his sophomore year. Only this year, he said, did it become clear that his school believes it “reserves the right to censor the paper whenever they feel like.”
The issue came up following a series of published interviews with newly elected school board members after the November election.
In an interview published Dec. 14, school board member Menno Riggleman questioned the school’s curriculum and made a controversial statement regarding homosexuality.
“On a conservative end, on an ethical end, it’s still sin,” Riggleman said. “Is it any different than a couple living together that aren’t married? No, it’s not any different.”
He also expressed his distaste for Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, especially its place in a school’s curriculum.
“That’s so far outdated, it was outdated when I went to school,” Riggleman said. “But do I really want to make my goal to get rid of it? No, I really think people need to make their own decisions on what they feel and their theories are in life.”
When Expression reporters wanted to include a quote from board member Michael Martin in response to Riggleman’s statement, Elizabethtown High School Principal Maura Hobson told the newspaper to remove the quote, adding, according to McCloud, that the paper was trying to “stir the pot” by inciting conflict between board members.
McCloud said he and his co-editor-in-chief wrote a letter to Superintendent Michele Balliet, who referred the issue back to Hobson. McCloud added that Hobson later said she could eliminate the club and newspaper altogether if she chose to.
Hobson and Balliet both declined to comment for this story.
District spokesman Troy Portser said in an email Friday that McCloud has a “right to share his thoughts and we applaud him.”
It’s routine for administrators to have final approval of what the Expression prints, but “this is far beyond the acceptable regulation of the newspaper,” McCloud said.
There are 28 students involved in the club, McCloud said.
“For everyone involved in the newspaper, it’s a really powerful organization,” he said. “It’s to me a disaster for them not to recognize the importance of that.”
What the law states
According to a U.S. Supreme Court decision made in 1988, a school does have the right to limit what a student publication can publish.
The decision stemmed from a lawsuit filed by a student newspaper that said the administration at Hazelwood East High School outside St. Louis, Missouri, censored articles on teen pregnancy and divorce.
“First Amendment rights of students in the public schools are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings, and must be applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment,” according to the opinion in the case, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier.
“A school need not tolerate student speech that is inconsistent with its basic educational mission, even though the government could not censor similar speech outside the school,” the opinion continued.
According to Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, “Students can say whatever they want. They just can’t say it in the school’s paper.”
Because of the newspaper’s affiliation with the school, and because school resources are used to produce the paper, whatever is published is perceived as the school’s speech, Roper said.
Despite calling the censorship “ridiculous,” Roper said administrators aren’t infringing on students’ rights.