Editors of the Elizabethtown Area High School student newspaper say the school administration forced them to remove a quote from an interview with a school board member, LNP staff writer Alex Geli reported last week. The issue came up regarding a series of published interviews with newly elected school board members after the November election. The student publication, the Elizabethtown Expression, runs monthly in the Elizabethtown Advocate — a local weekly newspaper, which is owned by LNP Media Group — and online at eahsnews.org.
So here’s the scenario.
School board member Menno Riggleman criticized the inclusion of Darwin’s theory of evolution — which he believes is “outdated” — in the Elizabethtown school curriculum. And said homosexuality, on “a conservative end, on an ethical end,” is “still sin.” He added, “Is it any different than a couple living together that aren’t married? No, it’s not any different.”
To any journalist — not just a student journalist — those quotes, from an elected official, would be interesting and newsworthy. And the normal journalistic protocol would be to get another view to provide balance.
This is what the student journalists at Elizabethtown Area High School wanted to do, when they sought a comment from school board member Michael Martin. They were simply reporting a story.
But Elizabethtown Area High School Principal Maura Hobson saw it differently. She told the student journalists to remove Martin’s response to Riggleman’s quotes from their article.
According to Expression co-editor-in-chief Nathaniel McCloud, Hobson said the student journalists were trying to “stir the pot” by inciting conflict between board members.
The principal later said she could eliminate the student newspaper club of 28 members and their publication altogether if she chose to, McCloud told LNP.
The sad reality is that a principal asking students to remove material from a student publication is legal.
As Geli reported, the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier determined that a school may limit what a student publication publishes. (In that case, student journalists said the administration at Hazelwood East High School in suburban St. Louis, Missouri, censored articles on teen pregnancy and divorce.)
“Students can say whatever they want. They just can’t say it in the school’s paper,” Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, told Geli.
School resources are employed to publish the newspaper, and the newspaper is affiliated with the school, so whatever is published is perceived as the school’s speech, Roper said.
But as Daniel Robrish, editor of the Elizabethtown Advocate, said, “Although the high school principal appears to be within her legal rights, that doesn’t mean it was the right thing to do.”
He’s right. It wasn’t.
And if it’s true that Hobson threatened the student newspaper with elimination, that’s particularly awful. (Neither Hobson nor Elizabethtown Superintendent Michele Balliet would comment for Geli’s story.)
We admire the student journalists at Elizabethtown Area High School for taking a stand for journalistic independence. McCloud told LNP that the Elizabethtown Expression is “a longstanding part” of the school district that has done, and is doing, “important work.”
Student newspapers that make it a stated goal to do “important work” generally do. We read the Expression’s interviews of the school board members and were impressed by the questions — about property tax reform, curriculum, the school board members’ goals — the student journalists asked. They clearly had done their homework.
We were particularly impressed by the editor’s note that explained why the student newspaper had conducted the interviews: “School board elections are a crucial aspect of education and politics in the country, but they receive little attention.”
That is absolutely right. And because the Expression is printed monthly by the Elizabethtown Advocate, these interviews illuminated for the wider community the role the school board members would play.
It didn’t strike us as an effort to stir the pot or incite conflict. It seemed like responsible journalism “by the students, for the students, concerning the students,” as the Expression’s credo puts it.
A good student newspaper can serve the same important watchdog role that a community newspaper can. The student journalists at Elizabethtown Area High School seem to be on the right track. They ought to be given the freedom to follow it — wherever it leads.