Board president blocks editors' use of confidential report on investigation
NEW JERSEY — Lawsuits abound at West Essex High School, and the next party filing suit may be the editors of the student newspaper.
Editor in chief Jennifer Keenan is leading the charge against a prior restraint order that crippled the ability of the Wessex Wire to report on a scandal involving school superintendent Gary Vitta.
After the West Essex Regional School District Board of Education announced on April 24 that an investigation of Vitta had taken place, editors of the Wire decided to investigate and report the probe in an upcoming issue.
Before the article was written, however, about nine pages of the school board’s 50-page confidential report were leaked to student editors.
When board president Kathy Kaczynski learned that the report had fallen into the hands of the student journalists, she issued a directive prohibiting publication of the paper “until further notice.”
West Essex principal James Corino and newspaper adviser Tina Lane reluctantly complied, Keenan said.
At the May 12 board meeting the following week, Kaczynski rescinded her order against publication but left in place a restriction on printing excerpts from the report.
In the meantime, vice principal of academic affairs Jo Tandler filed a formal lawsuit against the superintendent and the school board. The lawsuit alleged that Vitta made several anti-Semitic remarks and sexually harassed female employees.
Still forbidden from using the report excerpts, the Wire published a story on May 27 detailing some of the complaints against Vitta based on Tandler’s legal complaint. While the Wire quotes some examples of Vitta’s alleged anti-Semitism, the student newspaper still did not mention any examples of the alleged sexual harassment.
A May 15 issue of the local newspaper, The Progress, had already detailed examples of the alleged anti-Semitism and sexual harassment.
Despite finally being able to report on the allegations, the Wire has been forced to continue operating under a restriction against using the confidential report.
But Lane disputes the report’s confidentiality, in part because excerpts were read at both the May 12 and June 23 board meetings.
From the beginning, both Lane and Keenan have asserted that the students never intended to publish a biased article or base their article entirely on inconclusive excerpts.
In articles in the Wire, in fact, Keenan and Lane take issue with the fact that the board censored the article before even having seen it.
Complicating the issue even further, however, is a statement read by board members Ron Davison and Richard Schwartz at the May 12 meeting that said once the report was issued and copies were given to the affected parties, “they [affected parties] would be free to do with it as they saw fit, including showing it to witnesses, submitting to a court, and even publishing it.”
Despite the internal disagreement within the school board, the Wire has not gone ahead and discussed the report in print directly or published any excerpts because the students “want to maintain their contention of responsibility,” Lane said.
Rather than publishing an underground paper or even just defying Kaczynski’s order directly, the editors have “decided to listen and fight it,” and are considering filing a lawsuit.
“We maintain that we are a public forum,” Lane said, adding that she would like the school board to see “this is the law and this really supersedes what you are doing.”
If Keenan and Lane can show that the Wire was well established as a “public forum,” the paper would be exempt from the 1988 Supreme Court decision Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier which placed greater limits on high school journalists.
Furthermore, previous cases have held that the New Jersey state constitution provides even greater free expression protection than the First Amendment.
“We really want to test the state constitution,” Lane said.
“I don’t want people going out of here thinking they have no rights.”
Fall 1997, reports