Middle school editor sues for $50,000
Complaint attacks censorship, new regulations on paper
MICHIGAN — Dan Vagasky, the 14-year-old editor of Ostego Middle School’s student newspaper, the Bulldog Express, is trying to teach his school district a lesson in federal court.
The complaint filed in April asks that the court declare that administrators violated Vagasky’s constitutional rights by prohibiting the publication of a story by student Haley Pierson about a shoplifting incident that occurred during a school ski trip. The lawsuit seeks damages of at least $50,000.
The complaint argues that the reasons given for censoring the article are “… pretextual, irrational, arbitrary and in retaliation for and punishment for the exercise of First Amendment expression….”
Administrators never demonstrated that the article would have disrupted school activities to the extent that pedagogical goals were threatened, the complaint states. School administrators cannot censor a publication without a legitimate educational interest according to the Supreme Court’s 1988 decision Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier.
The complaint also asks the court to strike down new regulations that Ostego administrators have since enacted.
According to the complaint, a new prior review policy includes restrictions that are “content-based” and “vague, ambiguous and unconstitutional.”
The case is scheduled to go to trial in the spring of 1998 unless an agreement can be reached when both sides meet with a mediator in late summer.
Meanwhile, Dianna Stampfler officially has been removed as adviser to the Express by superintendent James Leyndyke. Stampfler had supported Vagasky’s claim that his rights were violated and served as the paper’s adviser for four years.
Leyndyke, who initially had said that censoring the story was a way for the school to put its “best foot forward,” refused to comment.
Fall 1997, reports