Students fight for free press

Editors to retain control over newspaper despite school officials' efforts

NEW YORK -- The student newspaper at Freeport High School won a fight to retain the free-press guidelines it has operated under for 30 years in November.

After The New York Times published a commentary criticizing the school board's attempt to establish administrative control over the newspaper and a camera crew from the Freedom Forum showed up at one of their meetings, the school board relented and decided to drop its efforts to eliminate the free-press guidelines. In December, it appeared that the student newspaper at Freeport High School would once again be free.

"I think [the school board members] were very surprised," said Michael Leonard, Flashings news editor. "I think they just expected us to be handing out fliers and talking to people, which we were doing anyway, but not for cameras to be up in their faces ... and ACLU people coming to the podium to speak."

Leonard attributed the newspaper staff's success in reviving the free-press guidelines to its ability to draw attention to its cause. But although the situation looks promising, Leonard said nothing is definite yet. School officials and Flashings editors still have to establish a new set of guidelines before the editors are willing to begin work on the first issue.

"We haven't come to an agreement yet, but we think we're on the way to doing that," Leonard said. "We don't want to work without definite guidelines."

For 30 years, the student newspaper at Freeport High School had operated under guidelines that gave the editorial staff absolute control over its content. During that time, the newspaper won numerous awards and dozens of former editors went on to prominent careers in journalism.

But in September, school officials announced their decision to abolish the free-press guidelines and replace them with a set of guidelines that would take the editorial control away from the students and ultimately place it in the hands of the district superintendent.

Leonard said Anthony Ciaglia, the district's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, told him the statement of intent -- the original free-press guidelines -- was being eliminated to reduce the school district's legal liabilities.

Ciaglia did not return calls made to his office by the Report requesting comment, but Michael Conte, a public relations consultant hired by the Freeport school district, returned a call made by the Report to Ciaglia's office.

"[The original statement of intent] is not reflective of the way in which our schools are run today and the way in which our society has evolved," Conte said prior to the school board's decision not to adopt the new, more restrictive guidelines.

He said the clause in the statement of intent requiring the involvement of the Flashings editorial staff in selecting a newspaper adviser was not reflective of schools today because "students should not be brought into a hiring process." The statement of intent required the selection of an adviser to be done jointly by the high school administration, the Flashings editorial board and the interested teacher.

"That element of the [original] letter of intent was ill-conceived," said Conte, who authored the new guidelines. "That's not what kids do. Kids are there to learn. They're not there to decide who they should hire to teach them."

The new guidelines stated that a faculty adviser for the newspaper would be appointed by the board of education on a yearly basis.

Conte said the original press guidelines were changed because the new principal of Freeport, Lottie Taylor-Northover, wanted to replace longtime Flashings adviser Ira Schildkraut.

But Conte refuted the idea that the new guidelines would take editorial control over the newspaper away from the students, despite the guidelines' stipulation that a committee be created to review any articles the faculty adviser sees as "needlessly sensational, personally hurtful or potentially litigious."

Under the original guidelines, the decision to print an article rested solely in the hands of the editorial board, which was made up entirely of students.

"No one's suggested that the editorial control doesn't rest with the staff," Conte said. "In fact, it does. But you'll note in the letter of intent it says that if the faculty adviser sees something that is ill-conceived and potentially either litigious or insensitive or does not abide by the good rules of journalism, then it is the obligation of the professional -- the faculty adviser -- to bring that to the attention of a review committee. So, a review committee is not going to be [formed] unless a professional is deeming that we have a potential problem. And why is that the case? Because kids are still kids."

The guidelines specified that the review committee would be comprised of three members of the student government association, the principal, the assistant superintendent and the faculty adviser. If the review committee was divided, the guidelines authorized the superintendent to make the final decision.

Conte could not point to a specific incident in the past 30 years that prompted a change in the guidelines, saying only that times change, and even though the school had never been sued for anything Flashings had printed in the past, "there are new kids writing the newspaper every year," he said.

"We live in a society 30 years after that last letter was written in which we have become a lot more litigious society, and we have become a place where it's a lot easier to either offend people or be insensitive to people, even unknowingly so," Conte said. "And I maintain that students in an instructional setting still need guidance. ... They may, at times, unwittingly do something to besmirch their reputation and potentially do something to besmirch the reputation of their school district or bring about litigation."

"I think if the district was taking editorial control away, kids would probably be less interested, but I don't believe that they are," Conte said.

In fact, the entire Flashings editorial staff had refused to work under the new guidelines. On a Web site the staff created to arouse interest in its situation, it said the proposed letter of intent "will completely eliminate Flashings' status as a free student forum."

Leonard questioned the need to change the guidelines just because they were written 30 years ago.

"People say 30 years is really old, but that statement of intent has been working for us since last year and the year before," Leonard said. "People will say it's 30 years old and outdated, but it's been working since five months ago."

The Flashings editors first learned that the free-press guidelines were in jeopardy on the day their first staff meeting was scheduled to take place. On that day, their principal, Taylor-Northover, told the adviser he was fired. Then she told the students that the statement of intent was gone, and the newspaper itself had been eliminated.

Adam Gaffney, the editor of Flashings, said the principal's actions took him by surprise.

"Originally, our adviser told us to start working on Flashings," he said. "We had signs up in the school, and we made announcements for the first staff meeting. Then, the day of the first meeting, the adviser was told that he would no longer be the adviser, and therefore, the meeting that day had to be canceled."

Gaffney said Taylor-Northover did not give the editorial staff a reason for halting the newspaper, but told him she removed Schildkraut to give someone else an opportunity to oversee the paper.

Taylor-Northover declined to comment on the situation.

Schildkraut said he had no idea he would be fired from his position as adviser to Flashings. He said he was "devastated" when Taylor-Northover told him he was being removed from the position he had held for 29 years.

Schildkraut said many former Flashingseditors have gone on to careers in journalism, including one whose nonfiction book was on The New York Times' best-seller list for more than 10 weeks. While he was adviser, two of the articles Flashings published prompted investigations by the Nassau County district attorney's office.

Before the school board reversed its decision to implement the new guidelines, Schildkraut had said he was troubled that future students would not have the opportunity to work under what he characterized as "innovative, but workable" guidelines.

"I'm concerned about the fact that after 29 years of good journalism, there is no high school newspaper in this building," he said. "I'm concerned that students who are interested in journalism-serious journalism-are being deprived of the opportunity to practice it."

Michael Zielenziger, a former Flashings editor and graduate of Freeport High School, was also concerned that future students would not have the experience of working on a newspaper with free-press guidelines. Zielenziger, now the Tokyo bureau chief for Knight-Ridder Newspapers, had contacted Freeport officials to try to convince them to restore the original statement of intent.

He said the free-press guidelines made it possible for him to pursue stories that the administration may not have liked, including a controversial story about an overseas study tour targeted to Freeport students. The story eventually led to charges of consumer fraud being leveled against the tour company.

"Without the kind of freedom of press we knew we enjoyed, that story would never have been published," Zielenziger said. "No doubt, those who would shackle the paper now wouldn't run that story."

Zielenziger credits his experience working on Flashings with his success as a journalist. The story he broke about the tour company led to a summer internship at Newsday, where he worked for three consecutive summers.

"There's no question that the freedom granted me as a journalist at Flashings, as well as the tutelage of Ira Schildkraut, a conscientious and challenging teacher with a deep respect for the First Amendment, taught me invaluable lessons that helped me find a career," Zielenziger said.

For now, the Flashings staff is working with an attorney from the NYCLU on a new set of guidelines it plans to propose to the school board. The new guidelines will continue to guarantee the editors of the newspaper the freedom to publish without any administrative control. The staff's proposal also contains a provision allowing the staff to confidentially submit any article it has legal concerns about to the school district's attorneys for review.

Overall, Leonard said, he is pleased with the outcome of the staff's campaign to restore Flashings' free-press guidelines.

"It's gone very well," he said. "I think we had an objective in the beginning, and we're approaching that objective now."

"It shows that three or four kids can actually go up against an administration and make them back down."

Visit the Save Flashings Web site.

reports, Winter 1999-2000