Reporter saves seized newspapers
Principal relents and allows publication distribution
FLORIDA — A student received a standing ovation from teachers and students in September after winning a newspaper censorship battle with her principal at Northeast High School in St. Petersburg.
Managing editor Maribeth Phillips wrote a story describing the school’s possible change to a “traditional” curriculum for the Nor’easter’s first issue of the 1997-98 school year.
“Traditional” schools require such things as mandatory attendance of parents at meetings and stricter dress and behavior codes for students. A coalition of teachers and parents in St. Petersburg are in favor of changing to a traditional school.
Northeast’s principal Michael Miller saw the Nor’easter prior to distribution because his assistant principal had “concerns” about the content of the paper.
Miller approached the Nor’easter’s faculty adviser and first year teacher, Katherine Preble, claiming that the paper contained “errors.”
“She had two options: She could hold the newspaper, or I could hold the newspaper,” said Miller.
According to Miller, this new adviser was the person who actually “held” the paper after being given those two options from the principal, her boss.
Miller said he was “concerned” about a few stories including an article “warning” incoming freshman about hazing practices that was, “in my opinion, an intimidation article.” Miller felt that the traditional school story plainly stated that Northeast was becoming a traditional school, rather than explaining that the policy was in the deliberation stage.
“Right now the committee is divided [over the change], we have not had the opportunity for public forum,” said Miller. “If that article were to hit the streets it would cause real, real political controversy.”
“They didn1t like the fact that I told it like it was,” said Phillips, who believes Miller was worried about the reaction of parents to the traditional school story.
When Bonnie Hill, an advertiser in the Nor’easter, discovered that the paper had been seized, she contacted the Student Press Law Center for advice and notified the St. Petersburg Times.
“I don’t understand why [the school] has classes to teach journalism to the students and then when the first controversial article comes up they do what they do,” said Hill.
Hill credits St. Pete Times reporter Jim DeBrosse’s story about the confiscated Nor’easter, for getting the story to the public and getting the paper released.
DeBrosse’s story stated that Miller “locked up” the newspapers and was planning to “destroy” them because he was worried about parents’ reaction to the traditional school story.
Miller claims that the papers were held “always on a temporary basis.”
Miller finally allowed the paper to be distributed under the condition that a letter be printed along with the traditional school story. This letter provided the principal’s perspective on the censorship of Phillips’ article.
The Nor’easter was released a week after it was originally scheduled for distribution.
“I really admire the students for sticking up for their rights, especially Maribeth,” said DeBrosse.
Northeast students’ fight for press freedom may encounter future obstacles as a new policy has been drafted that requires “anything dealing with controversy to be shown to the assistant principal,” said Miller. “We believe in the freedom of the press, but we also believe in responsible journalism.”
Prior to distribution, the paper is reviewed four times by assistant principal Trisha O’Neil. She even participates in the Nor’easter staff’s “story idea day.”
“I don’t like it at all,” said Hill regarding the new policy. “I don’t like the fact that students were told that a controversial article may not appear. We’ll just have to wait and see about this one.”
Apparently this new prior review policy has already led to canceled stories. Phillips explained that an article about school-bus overcrowding was not run for fear that the school would look bad. A story dealing with abortion and teen pregnancy was also stopped by O’Neil.
“Unfortunately, if we want to have our paper, we have to put up with this,” said Phillips.
O’Neil did not return phone calls from the SPLC.
Florida, reports, Winter 1997-98