Principal rejects news story about himself
Paper's story on sex harrassment investigation provokes censor
TEXAS — An existing prior review policy at McCallum High School in Austin had never been an issue before surfacing in December.
Student editors at The Shield were not aware of the policy, but when writer Jef Goldsum reported on the reinstatement of principal Shelly Pittman pending conclusion of an investigation into sexual harassment allegations against him, the principal ordered Pittman to prevent the story’s publication.
“By way of this communication, I am giving you the directive not to print the story dealing with my current situation at McCallum High School,” Pittman wrote on Dec. 12, 1996.
Pittman had been removed from his post on Nov. 8 while a state agency investigated sexual harassment allegations involving Pittman and students at both McCallum High School and earlier charges from when he was principal at Bedichek Middle School in 1993. After being temporarily reinstated, Pittman agreed to an interview with Goldsum about the reinistatement and the on-going investigation for a story in The Shield. Pittman apparently changed his mind before the paper went to press.
“The first time we wrote an unfavorable article about the principal was the first time he saw fit to go for prior review,” said Theresa Proctor, adviser for The Shield.
After Proctor contacted the Student Press Law Center for advice, the staff of The Shield decided to run a blank front page in place of the censored article for that week’s issue. The Austin American Statesman picked up the story before The Shield went to press, and school district officials found they could no longer keep the story quiet. Deputy Superintendent Kay Psencik cleared The Shield for publication with the story intact.
“This was not the first time sexual harassment allegations had been made against the principal, and here he was being reinstated,” Proctor said. “We felt this was a very big thing that our students needed to know about, but it was going to be an informative article, not a witch hunt. A student went and interviewed him [Pittman] Wednesday and he was very cooperative. The next day, I’m not sure what happened. Everything just turned around on us.”
Proctor said that Pittman’s attempt at censorship backfired — the newspaper staff’s threat to print a blank front page drew attention to the act of censorship, and what would have been a local story about the principal exploded into a national freedom of expression issue.
“If this hadn’t come about, it would be a local issue, a McCallum issue,” Proctor said. “Now it’s a national issue that went out on the AP wire. This whole thing should never have happened, and I hope the administration realizes that by trying to censor us, the attention to our story was only magnified.”
The Shield ran the original story the following Monday, but Proctor says the issue of prior review is far from resolved.
“All the journalism teachers in Austin know about the policy, but until now it’s never been tested, it’s never been an issue,” Proctor said. “The prior review policy should not even exist. It’s my understanding that the policy is being revised and, hopefully, will be removed altogether.”
reports, Spring 1997