Newspaper prints pulled article seven months later


Editor and principal publish opinions on censorship to settle headline case





MARYLAND — The headline appeared clever, not controversial; “Students Bag Ethics in Contest,” it claimed, introducing an article about a recycling drive held by a school club. Yet it would take another seven months for that headline to be read by students.

As editors of the Governor Thomas Johnson’s student newspaper prepared to publish the school year’s last issue of The Governor, they were told by the principal, Joseph Heidel, that the aforementioned headline could not run on the front page. He demanded that the headline, the subheadline and the article be moved from the front page to the opinion section.

When student editors stood firm and refused to move the headline, Heidel halted distribution of the newspaper. He refused to compromise when they offered to manually remove it from every paper.

“By placing the article with this headline on a page other than in the opinion/editorial section of The Governor, it became a statement of fact and, in my judgment … libelous,” Heidel later wrote. The students refused to comply with either option and, as a result the paper was not distributed to the school. The article reported the results of a plastic bag recycling drive and criticized some of the methods — such as purchasing boxes of new supermarket bags and taking them from recycling bins at stores — used by the winning class.

As a result of the censorship, the county school superintendent, Jack Dale, gathered the students and the principal together for a meeting, where it was decided that the students would run the headline and article within the opinion section accompanied by opposing viewpoints on the story and on the issues of libel and censorship.

On January 30, 1998, student editors of The Governor published the disputed headline, article, an opinion piece by the principal explaining his motivation for the censorship and a corresponding column written by the former editor, Hillary Walker, who had since graduated.

“That the students didn’t take the censorship lying down should make the administration reluctant to censor again,” said the students’ attorney, Rick Peltz. “I would have liked to have had a ruling that the principal was wrong, but in the current state of Maryland law, this was probably the best outcome we could hope for.”


reports, Spring 1998