Mo. high school newspaper delayed over officials' review

By Allie Diffendal
First Amendment Center Online intern
10.15.09

Editor’s note: The Boonville Daily News filed a public-records request with the Boonville R-1 School District on Oct. 12 regarding the administration’s decision to delay the distribution of its student paper on Oct. 2. The documents received by the newspaper did not include the requested copy of a district protocol requiring that the principal review the student paper before its publication, according to the Daily News.

School administrators at Missouri’s Boonville High School halted the distribution of the student newspaper Oct. 2 because the principal said he did not review the paper before its publication, as required by district policy.

School officials removed the unreviewed copies of the Pirate Press around lunchtime that day after Boonville schools Superintendent Mark Ficken asked that distribution be stopped. Pirate Press Editor-in-Chief Emily Voss told the Student Press Law Center that she re-distributed the newspapers to students after Ficken reversed his decision later that day. Ficken did not, however, allow the issue to be distributed as usual as a monthly insert in the Boonville Daily News, according to the SPLC.

Ficken requested the removal after Principal Jay Webster told him he was unable to edit the newspaper before it went to press. Ficken told the Daily News that he did not know why the principal had not reviewed the paper. Voss told the SPLC that the issue was indeed approved by both the newspaper’s adviser, Stephanie Carey, and the principal.

Ficken reviewed the Pirate Press after speaking with Webster, Ficken told the Daily News. He said the issue included inappropriate quotes from students about school personnel and facilities. Ficken cited three articles that he said contained inappropriate statements, according to the Daily News.

A front-page article on student opinions of school lunches quoted one student as saying, “School lunch sucks! I don’t know, it’s not that lunch ladies don’t work hard enough. It’s the fact that we don’t like what they cook; not enough flavor.”

“I think that there’s better verbiage to use,” Ficken told the Daily News, calling the word “sucks” an obscenity. He added that the school’s food service abides by the Missouri Department of Education standards, and said the article downgraded employees who “work so hard and do a really, really good job.”

Another front-page article included a quote from a student calling school buses overcrowded: “It’s ridiculous how over crammed we are. We’re like pack sardines in here, sweaty sardines.” Ficken dismissed this comment as untrue. “Buses are not overloaded, they are safe,” Ficken told the Daily News. He added that the Pirate Press article could unnecessarily worry parents.

The third article in dispute involved discrimination against students by socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, race and gender. One student quote labeled gay people as freaks. Ficken called that comment “inappropriate” and said editors must choose quotes carefully. Such comments “can be disruptive to the educational process,” Ficken told the Daily News. He cited fighting and gossiping as potential disruptions.

Ficken said the school would continue to publish the student newspaper as long as it followed district protocol, according to the Daily News. Although the administration and board of education want students to learn by producing a paper, Ficken said, production cannot include inappropriate language or belittling of staff. “I’m not going to stand for that,” he said.

Under the standard created by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988), school administrators can remove material deemed inappropriate, Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte told the Daily News. “What’s worrisome,” he said, “is the idea that material that’s simply critical of the school could be cited as grounds for withholding the paper.”

Allie Diffendal is a senior majoring in political science and American studies at Vanderbilt University.