ST. FRANCIS, Minn. — The editors of the student newspaper at St. Francis High School had planned to run a photograph on the front of their latest edition simulating the ripping of an American flag. Until their principal banned it.
So in its place, the Crier's editors laid out a big blue box with this message:
"Originally a photo was to be placed here but was censored by the administration."
Some First Amendment experts said administrators overstepped the law by blocking publication of the photo.
The photo doesn't really show an actual American flag being destroyed, but rather red, white and blue cloth bunting. It was taken by editor in chief Eric Sheforgen last fall during a school play called "The Children's Story." Student actors handled an actual flag, then substituted shredded bunting to make it appear as though a flag had been ripped apart. The play explored the repercussions of a fictional conquest of a U.S. school by an oppressive government such as that of the former Soviet Union.
The photo could be seen as offensive by community standards, said Edward Saxton, superintendent of Independent School District 15, which serves northern Anoka and southern Isanti counties.
But the image is already familiar to many students and staff at the school. They saw the scene performed on stage, and the photo itself hung in a school hallway until Principal Paul Neubauer had it removed Dec. 20, the newspaper said.
Sheforgen said he decided to write about the issue after he spoke with a legal expert at the Student Press Law Center, a free-press advocacy group in Arlington, Va.
According to the newspaper's editorial board, Neubauer threatened the Crier with legal action and froze its funds after the paper gave him a heads-up that it was planning to run the picture.
Under a compromise, the principal allowed the box to be published in place of the photo. The edition went to press, and was expected to be distributed to students.
Saxton said he fully supported the principal's decision, and that many other photos of the play would have been suitable.
"It's like a quote being taken out of context," said Saxton, a former principal of the high school. "That particular picture, although it's a snapshot of what was in the fall play, standing in isolation, it could be taken in many different ways. It could be pretty offensive to veterans or people who serviced in the military. It's kind of a community-standards thing."
Experts said school officials can censor school-financed publications only under certain circumstances, according to U.S. Supreme Court opinions. Public schools cannot censor the student publications unless their reasons for doing so are reasonably related to legitimate educational concerns.
The Crier maintains that because Neubauer declined to review the newspaper before publication in the past, and because the paper had operated that way for decades, the principal had no right to force the paper to not publish the photo.
According to the school district's written policy, "Official school publications are free from prior restraint by officials except as provided by law."
"This is actually pretty clear," Mike Hiestand, the Student Press Law Center's legal consultant who spoke to the Crier.
Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said his group might be interested in taking up the students' cause, and that the principal made the wrong decision.
"It sends a really bad message to students, and that's why he shouldn't do it," he said, noting that school journalism exercises are often intended to educate students on the rights, and responsibilities, of free speech. "It was a teaching moment, and he blew it."
The St. Paul Pioneer Press ran the photo with its Jan. 18 story about the controversy.