Students say principal's decision to confiscate newspapers stinks

Editors decry censorship of malodorous column

PENNSYLVANIA -- A student newspaper column about the results of "overactive intestinal bacteria," inspired more than a few laughs at Hatboro-Horsham High School; it sparked the confiscation of the entire Feb. 15 press run.

Acting principal Connie Malatesta found the humorous article about flatulence so foul that she locked all 1,200 copies of The Hat Chat in a safe and fired the adviser.

The administration paid $800 to reprint the issue with a black box covering the column.

Malatesta told The Philadelphia Inquirer that the column was "inappropriate."

"We don't want the Beavis and Butthead mentality to take over," she said.

But Hat Chat editors said Malatesta's actions reeked of censorship, and they asked the school board to reinstate their adviser and prohibit Hatboro-Horsham administrators from censoring the newspaper.

"It was clearly an excuse," said former newspaper adviser Robin Farr. "The farting article was an opportunity for them to attempt to tag the words obscene and substantially disruptive on an article, pull the article, fire me and think they were justified, when in fact the whole thing had to do with control over the paper and making sure that there were no 'negative articles' in the paper."

Editors argued that Malatesta violated a section of the state board of education regulations, the Pennsylvania Code, that says "students have a right and are as free as editors of other newspapers to report the news and editorialize" in their school newspapers.

Although state law permits school officials to review student newspapers prior to publication, it requires schools to establish a limitation on the time needed to make a decision. If the prescribed time has elapsed without a decision, the "material shall be considered authorized for distribution," according to the law.

Hat Chat editors said Malatesta had already reviewed the newspaper before it went to the printer. In fact, the column about flatulence was included in the newspaper to replace two commentaries for and against abortion that the principal had already censored.

Editors argued that Malatesta's decision to confiscate the newspapers after she had already had a chance to review the issue violated the state code.

Malatesta declined to comment on the situation.

Hat Chat editor Jerome Murphy told the school board that newspaper staff members were upset over more than just the suppression of a humorous piece on flatulence, they were troubled by what they saw as a pattern of censorship.

"Before you say, 'Yes, remove the irresponsible adviser. Yes, teach those kids a lesson about the real world,' and before you write the newspaper staff off as a bunch of Beavises and Buttheads screaming, 'Censorship!' and 'Free Speech!' you should know the real picture," Murphy said.

He told the board that administrators had been censoring newspaper articles that they felt portrayed the school in a negative light for the past three years.

"As Mrs. Malatesta will tell you, if we were a bunch of kids who really wanted to be screaming censorship, we could have been doing that a long time ago," Murphy told the board. "All year we have made all requested changes to the Hat Chat before it went [to press]."

Hat Chat assistant editor Rob Berretta said that in the Feb. 15 issue alone, administrators censored the two opinion pieces on abortion, an editorial cartoon and two photographs from the school's One-Act Play festival that depicted violence and alcohol consumption.

Although the school board sided with the principal, administrators met with editors the next day to discuss issues students had brought up at the meeting. Director of secondary education David Hottenstein asked the editors to develop a set of guidelines for running the newspaper.

Berretta said editors want the school board to adopt a policy that is in accordance with the Pennsylvania Code's guidelines for school-sponsored publications. In addition to requiring administrators to review each issue of the newspaper within a specific time frame, the code bars school officials from censoring or restricting material "simply because it is critical of the school or its administration."

"Our main goal is to gather our rights and to have the school acknowledge them according to the Pennsylvania state code," Berretta said.

He added that prior to the confiscation, newspaper staffers did not realize they had any free-press rights under state law, which is why they had never fought attempts to censor the paper before.

"Whenever [school officials] came down to censor stuff, we were mad about it, but we didn't think we had any rights," Berretta said.

The Pennsylvania School Press Association and the Journalism Education Association have sent letters to school officials criticizing Malatesta's actions. PSPA has threatened to file a formal complaint with the state attorney general if the district does not revise its guidelines to comply with the Pennsylvania Code.

"If nothing else," Farr said, "the kids have already made a huge step by the administration knowing what the staff is allowed to print and what they're not allowed to print. The administration knows they crossed the line."    

reports, Spring 2000