N.Y. students sue to restore newspaper's independence

NEW YORK -- Former staff members of the Tattler, Ithaca High School's student newspaper, filed a lawsuit against the Ithaca City School District in June claiming their First Amendment rights had been violated and guidelines restricting the paper are unconstitutional.

The students seek relief and damages from the school's restrictive publication guidelines, its prior restraint in its use of prior review of the publication and in its prevention of the distribution of an independent publication produced by the students.

The students, all of whom graduated in June, filed the suit after they ''exhausted'' other options to remove guidelines that allow Ithaca High administrators to censor the paper, former Tattler Editor in Chief Robert Ochshorn said.

''We had taken lots of other routes before this,'' he said. ''I see no other way we could solve our problem.''

The students' dispute with the district began in November 2004 when the Tattler surveyed students, asking them to rate the performance of the faculty and administration of the school, including Principal Joe Wilson, who had assumed the position a few months earlier. The results of the survey revealed that two-thirds of Ithaca students viewed Wilson's performance as principal unfavorably, prompting him to send a memorandum to faculty opposing their participation in such surveys.

The Tattler attempted a follow-up survey directed at teachers in December 2004 but the district rejected the survey and told the staff to perform a different one that lacked the questions the staff felt were important. The students obliged, but only because they had assured readers they would perform an additional survey.

In January 2005, Wilson imposed guidelines on the newspaper in response to three provocative articles printed in the paper, including a restaurant review that some community members described as ''racist'' and ''sexist.'' The other two articles featured material that referred to a controversial comment made by Wilson and a quotation where a student refers to a teacher by name.

The new guidelines say the paper's adviser ''shall read, edit and approve all articles prior to publication'' and ''has the right to change, edit, or remove content that would substantially interfere with the District's work or impinge upon the rights of other students; or is inconsistent with the legitimate pedagogical concerns of the District.''

The ''pedagogical concerns'' include ''content that is ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, inaccurate, libelous, biased or prejudiced, unethical, vulgar or profane, or is not suitable for immature audiences,'' as is stated in the decision of the Supreme Court case Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier.

\The students' lawyer, Ray Schlather, said these guidelines are intolerable for a newspaper that previously published free of any policies or guidelines.

''It was about as close to being a free and independent newspaper as you could have in a high school setting,'' Schlather explained. The paper is an extracurricular activity and students have historically had the final say over the editorial content of the paper.

''All of a sudden these new policies were imposed by this principal which constitute a high degree of prior restraint, which is offensive to the First Amendment,'' he continued.

When the February issue reached then-adviser Stephanie Vinch, she removed a cartoon showing stick figures posing in various sexual positions that accompanied a story about the school's sex education curriculum. The issue ran with a blank space where the cartoon had been. Vinch also edited and removed content from two articles without speaking with the staff. The censorship was appealed by the staff, but Wilson and Superintendent Judy Pastel upheld Vinch's decision.

Vinch resigned from the post in February, forcing the staff to publish the paper without the name the Tattler because, under Wilson's guidelines, the students could not publish the paper without an adviser. But the staff continued independently, using their own money to publish a paper for three months.

The March Issue included the censored cartoon with an article that attempted to examine why the issue became so heated.

When the students tried to distribute the paper at school, the administration prevented them from doing so, Schlather said.

After printing the April Issue and the May Issue, the paper printed as the Tattler again in June when a new adviser, Roselyn Teukolsky, joined the staff.

Although no efforts of censorship arose with the June issue, Schlather said the case is no less important.

''We have a dedicated group of editors who are determined to stand on principle and are determined to see this case through even after they leave the high school,'' Schlather said. ''The case will remain viable because the principles that are underlying the case are significant and they certainly don't end with graduation.

''We believe that if our young people do not understand the rights and importance of a free press early on, then [they] will never be concerned [with a free press],'' he continued.

Superintendent Judy Pastel declined to comment.

Ochshorn said the remaining staff members also feel strongly about the importance of winning the case even though they are not a part of the suit. He hopes the suit will secure the paper's place as a newspaper for the students of Ithaca High.

''I would like to see the Tattler remain a forum for student expression rather than a public relations tool for the district,'' Ochshorn explained.

The complaint was filed in the Northern District of New York on June 3.

Fall 2005, reports