Ohio school officials confiscate newspaper, claim libel and privacy violation

District policy prohibits administrators from censoring newspaper

OHIO — A group of students at Wooster High School were determined to report on how school officials were punishing students for drinking.They were denied that right although a district policy protects student press freedom.The Wooster Blade story described how the school board overruled administrators and withdrew the punishment of six students who were caught drinking alcohol at a house party attended by 50 to 100 of their classmates, said Op/Ed Editor Vasanth Ananth.Following an investigation into the Nov. 7 party, assistant principals at the high school recommended the six students, all athletes, to be suspended from one-fourth of a sports season in accordance to an athletic department policy prohibiting consumption of alcohol during the school year, according to the Blade story. The punishments were appealed by parents but upheld by Principal Jim Jackson and Wooster City School District Superintendent David Estrop, wrote the student paper. The school board then overturned the decision during a December meeting and instead ordered the students to do 10 hours of community service, reported the Blade article.The story also included a comment by the daughter of a school board member in which she admitted to a Blade reporter that she drank at the party, said Ananth."This is obviously something the community should know about," said Ananth. "These kids' punishments are being overturned at the whim of political figures that are really not following set guidelines for punishing kids."School officials disagreed. A Blade staff member witnessed Jackson and one of his assistant principals confiscating all 4,500 copies of the biweekly student-produced newspaper from its office on Dec. 19, the night before they were to be distributed at school. Estrop said the Blade was taken on the advice of lawyers who said the publication had inaccuracies and was potentially libelous.At least two students said they were misquoted with statements that "attributed to them acts of misconduct and potentially acts of criminal behavior," Estrop told The Associated Press on Dec. 21. District policy restricts school officials from censoring the newspaper unless material falls within a specified category of unprotected speech.According to the Student Publication Rights bylaw in the district policy, "an unfettered student press is essential." It also says, "Student journalists [are] afforded with protection against prior review and censorship." According to the policy, such freedoms, however, do not extend to material that is obscene, materially disruptive or defamatory, which includes slander and libel.Ananth said the Blade did not libel anyone. "[Administrators] have not found any evidentiary support that [the student's statements were] libelous. They just think it is libelous," Ananth said. And he questioned what authority allowed school officials to review and exercise restraint of the papers before they were distributed. Though the newspaper is created in a class, Ananth said it is funded through advertising. He also said Blade adviser Kristi Hiner was aware of the article and supported the students' right to publish it. She was away for personal reasons during the confiscation.Jackson told the AP that the newspapers were confiscated after a teacher told him about a possible confidentiality problem with the article.Jackson said federal law forbids naming students who face disciplinary action without parents' permission, and at least one student reported having been misquoted. Violating privacy rights could leave the school open to lawsuits, he told the AP.A Wooster High School official said a district maintenance manager disposed of the Blade sometime during Dec. 20-21. She said the school board met this morning for an executive session, but she did not know whether the newspaper confiscation was discussed. No school board member could be reached for comment and Jackson and Estrop did not return repeated phone messages left over several days.