CINCINNATI — Parents of a high school sportswriter are questioning whether an opinion piece his principal ordered ripped out of the school magazine because of its digs at the football team met the U.S. Supreme Court's standards for allowing censorship of student journalism.
The student staff was ordered to rip out two pages of the December issue of Odin's Word magazine containing the column by Evan Payne, a 17-year-old junior at Princeton High School.
The piece blames the football team's 8-23 record over the past three seasons mainly on a coaching strategy to pursue an offense that relies on passing by a freshman quarterback, and accuses the team of ignoring the running game.
It also takes shots at the players. "I wonder if they want to be on the field on Friday nights," Payne wrote.
Coach Bill Leach said he complained that the column was unfair but did not ask for it to be pulled.
Aaron Mackey, superintendent of the district that encompasses several Cincinnati suburbs, defended the decision and said he would tighten oversight of the magazine by assigning the district spokeswoman as an adviser and clarifying in school policy that advisers may censor articles.
"The (school) board pays for that publication," he said.
Payne's parents, magazine illustrator CF Payne and Paula Payne — who also is treasurer of the school's booster group — wrote to the school board objecting to the censorship.
In its 1988 decision Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school officials could restrict school-sponsored student speech as long as their reasons for censoring the expression were reasonably related to legitimate educational concerns. The Hazelwood case involved a student newspaper created as part of a journalism class. The Court ruled the newspaper was not a public forum and that school officials could censor two stories dealing with the sensitive topics of teenage pregnancy and the impact of divorce upon teens.
The Court in Hazelwood explained that this deferential, reasonableness standard would not apply to a student newspaper that is a public or open forum — a venue for generally unregulated expression that school officials have created “by policy or practice.” School officials have to meet a higher standard to censor content in a student newspaper that is a public forum.
The Paynes argue that the magazine's publication policy declares it an "open forum."
Their letter also said pulling the football piece was inconsistent with past practice, such as allowing predictions of poor seasons for other sports and even snide comments about students, such as a photograph caption teasing a tall girl for dating a short boy.
Evan Payne said he was trying to use a tone like the one used by professional commentators in newspapers and television.
"I knew it would probably make somebody mad, but for them to cut it out, it completely threw me off guard."
Mackey said officials had Payne's interests at heart as well.
"You're dealing with a very large football squad, not in stature but in numbers," he said. "You've got one kid putting his neck out there. It may not be in his best interest to have that article. This is not a threat, but it creates an attitude and a situation between kids."
The rest of the student journalists don't agree with the decision but realize change is coming, said Ruth Pearson, a senior who is chief editor.
"Most of our staff has not accepted it, but they've come to terms with it," she said. "We're going to continue to cover things that might be controversial, and that might raise eyebrows."
English teacher Achilles Lakes, the faculty adviser, said the magazine would lose even more independence if students fight the issue too much.
"Journalism in high school is not the same as journalism in the real world," he said. "Sometimes, we have to choose our battles."