Paper distribution halted for ethics headline


Plastic bag recycling drive fuels controversy; school invokes its own defintion of libel





MARYLAND — What student editors thought was a clever headline snowballed into a censorship conflict that threatens the future of the student newspaper at Governor Thomas Johnson High School in Frederick.

Principal Joseph Heidel refused to allow the 1,600 copies of the year-end issue of The Governor to be distributed when a teacher objected to the headline “Students bag ethics in contest.”

The story referred to a plastic bag recycling drive. The article related that teacher Richard McDonough’s philosophy class won the competition by purchasing unused bags from a grocery store and turning them in for recycling.

Heidel had no objection to the story itself, but told the newspaper’s adviser not to distribute the papers because the headline was libelous.

“[The administration] exercised powers we didn’t really think they had,” said student editor Hillary Walker.

Walker contacted the Student Press Law Center who helped the editors determine that the headline was, in fact, not libelous. Statements of opinion that neither state nor imply facts are not defamatory.

According to Walker, Heidel said he still sided with McDonough and that newspapers could only be distributed if the headline was changed.

“We wanted to publish it the way it was,” Walker said.

The student editors called a staff meeting and told their reporters that anyone who wanted to pull their stories from the “revised” edition could do so.

Even though Walker warned the staff members that withdrawing their articles “might mean sacrificing the paper,” the majority of students chose to protest the censorship and pulled their stories. As a result, Walker presented pages full of blank spaces to Heidel for prior review.

Walker said that Heidel told her he was “disappointed” and that he would not allow the blank pages to be printed because of the “embarrassment.”

While the students unsuccessfully appealed Heidel’s decision to Director of High Schools Joseph Polce, they attempted to reach some compromise with the principal, Walker said.

Heidel rejected offers to include an insert clarifying that no accusation on McDonough’s character was intended or to cut out the headline manually from every copy.

Instead, the only compromise reached allowed the editors to distribute a four-page senior section. The rest of the newspapers remain undistributed and the editors are appealing the decision to the associate superintendent through their lawyer, Richard Peltz.

“The remedy I’m asking for is the distribution of the newspapers as printed first thing in the fall,” Peltz said.

Peltz argues in a letter to the school district outlining the appeal that the headline is not libelous, in part because describing someone as unethical is a statement of opinion, not fact.

Even if the headline is considered a statement or implication of fact, however, Peltz said that in this specific case, “I would find that it’s true.”

But Assistant Superintendent of Legal Affairs Mark Blom explained that the Board of Education of Frederick County has its own definition of libel for student publications that does not match the legal definition.

The policy reads, “Libel is defined as any unprivileged false and malicious publication which … tends to expose a person to public scorn, hatred, contempt, or ridicule. It is a statement which tends to injure ‘reputation’ or to diminish the esteem, respect, goodwill or confidence in which a person is held, or to excite adverse, derogatory or unpleasant feelings or opinions about a person.”

“The difference in interpretation [of libel] is at the crux [of the controversy],” Blom said. “When we choose to use a label also used in another context, we’re not obligated to take that alternative definition lock, stock and barrel.”

Peltz writes in the letter, however, that a case regarding public schools in Baltimore, Nitzberg v. Parks (1975), already has determined that a school board’s definition of libel can be “unconstitutionally overbroad and vague.”

“[The school’s standard of libel] is such a low standard that the students may as well pack up and stop reporting the news,” Peltz said.

Walker said that Heidel has already told her that there will be no confusion regarding the newspaper next year.

“I take that to mean there is going to be a review board,” said Walker.

The district policy on publications includes a provision to allow for a review board to review articles and advertisements that “may be offensive to the school community.” The board may be composed of the principal and students, teachers or parents.

Blom said a review board’s purpose is “to expand the viewpoint beyond the principal” and said it should be seen as a “positive-move.”

Blom also said he thinks the district’s policies “are generally in line with Hazelwood,” and do not even go as far as they could “in recognizing the authority of the principal.”

“The article itself was critical and the principal has no problem with that,” Blom said. “There is a difference between being critical … and being offensive or insulting people.”

Walker, who helped resurrect the newspaper after a seven-year hiatus, has a different perspective on the situation.

“I expected so much more out of [the administration] than I ended up receiving,” Walker said.

“I’m not surprised our school has so many other problems when it shows so little trust or respect for the students,” Walker said, “What’s the point of having [a paper] if all we can talk about is where you should shop for a prom dress?”

Peltz said he may not hear a ruling on the appeal until school begins again in the fall.


Fall 1997, reports