Students fight administrative decision


Sensitive article cut from paper puts district under spotlight





NEW HAMPSHIRE — Even though they have received their high school diplomas and are looking forward to their first year of college this fall, Geoff Ward and Catie Fontaine are not letting the Portsmouth High School administration off the hook just yet.

Last year’s co-editor’s in chief of the Paper Clip have written a letter of appeal to the Portsmouth school board demanding a decision by the superintendent to censor an editorial they wrote in the June issue of the student-produced newspaper be overturned.

“We’re not trying to tangle up the school administration with this matter,” Ward said. “We want the decision overturned so this won’t happen again in the future.”

The editorial, which expressed discontent with a teacher being fired last year, was deemed by the Portsmouth city attorney’s office representing the school department as an invasion into private personnel matters. Superintendent Suzanne Schrader then instructed Paper Clip adviser Lynda Bettcher to remove the article from the paper the day before it was to be published.

The fired teacher, however, did not protest the publication of the article. “We were told by the superintendent that if we printed or circulated the article, the city would file suit against the paper,” Bettcher said. “We didn’t have a choice.”

Although the editorial was removed from the Paper Clip, it had already been sent to the local paper, the Portsmouth Herald, which printed the article in its entirety June 5.

Bettcher said the city attorney1s office and administration made up the legal excuse because the editorial critiqued a controversial district decision.

“[The district] decided the article was public relations-related,” she said. “They realized they didn’t want it to be printed so they came up with a weak legal argument.”

However, Assistant City Attorney, Kathleen Dwyer, said the article aired confidential and pending matters — something that could have exposed the district to liabilities.

“We didn’t think reporting confidential matters was an appropriate thing for students to do,” Dwyer said. “The purpose of school newspapers is educational and if it goes beyond what it’s supposed to, it’s the obligation of the school to make sure it works within the bounds.”

Ward and Fontaine admitted the story covered a sensitive issue, but said the editorial was objective and truthful. The two said the editorial was reviewed by attorneys for the Portsmouth Herald, who concluded there were no legal problems with the content.

“We checked all the facts and interviewed the administration for their side of the story,” Ward said. “This whole situation sets a very dangerous precedent in the district.”

“We just hope the paper continues to do what it always has — seek the truth,” Fontaine added. “We need to stand up for our rights.”

Although this is the first instance of censorship in the paper’s 10-year history at the school, Bettcher said she is worried something like this could happen again.

“The newspaper operates as a public forum and the administration has always stayed out of our business,” she said. “I hope they never do this again.”

The district has not yet responded to the letter of appeal.


Fall 1998, reports