'Advisory board' formed after Ga. student paper runs 'Modest Proposal'-style satire

Paper's adviser replaced, managing editor threatens to quit

GEORGIA -- An "editorial advisory board" will oversee publication of East Coweta High School's student newspaper in response to the September issue, which contained several "negative" articles -- including a column criticizing a school beauty pageant and a satire suggesting that low-performing fifth-graders be executed -- the principal announced Tuesday.

In Tuesday's meeting during the students' journalism block, Principal Derek Pitts announced that Elizabeth McFadden, a psychology teacher, would be the newspaper's new adviser, replacing journalism teacher Ellen Thomas, who resigned last week, according to Caitlyn VanOrden, the former Smoke Signals managing editor. Thomas, who could not be reached for comment, still will teach the journalism class.

Coweta School District spokesman Dean Jackson said the editorial board would not have the final decision over what is printed in the paper. Rather, the board, which will consist of two senior student editors and two teachers, will offer suggestions to McFadden and the students regarding the content. The suggestions are not binding, Jackson said, and it will be up to McFadden and the students to consider any possible changes.

"This is an internal editorial process," he said. "Not censorship."

VanOrden, who resigned her position after Tuesday's meeting, said she is not willing to accept the deal.

"We have already run the paper by ourselves," she said. "We as students have already proven we use good editorial judgment."

Jackson said the new advisory board does not change how the paper is run.

"As far as final editorial decisions go, there's been no changes in policy or in practice," he said.

VanOrden, who said she would not write for the paper unless it returned to operating as it did in the past, has worn a black armband for the past several days to protest the changes. The armbands evoke the Supreme Court's 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which upheld students' right to wear armbands to protest the Vietnam War. The court ruled in the landmark student speech case that students do not "shed their constitutional right to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate" and that administrators can only censor student speech if it will cause a material disruption or violate the rights of others.

"This is to remind students that the court has affirmed we do have rights," VanOrden said.

The controversy began when the September issue of Smoke Signals -- called the most widely read edition to date by both administrators and students -- was distributed as normal on Sept. 25. A few days later, Pitts collected all remaining issues, including papers in the journalism classroom, and stored them in his office, where they still remain, Jackson said,.

"It was not his intent to censor or stop the paper," Jackson said.

VanOrden said the principal told the staff that the issue showed the school in a "negative light" and that he wanted a "positive, uplifting publication."

Jackson, the district spokesman, said Pitts objected to several articles in the latest issue, especially on the opinion page, including a satirical column titled "Another 'Modest Proposal.'" The column was modeled after Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," in which Swift suggested eating the babies of the poor to end poverty in Ireland. The Smoke Signals piece suggested euthanizing the fifth grade students who perform in the bottom 25 percent on standardized tests to eliminate stupidity from America.

Pitts did not return phone calls; Jackson said the principal declined to comment to the Student Press Law Center.

"Some people had misread this," Jackson said. "If somebody is not familiar with Jonathan Swift, then they would think it is just calling for the killing of students."

Jackson said several teachers and parents did misread the article and complained to the school.

Even for readers who understood the reference to Swift's satire, "there were still some people very upset in calling, even facetiously, for the killing of mentally deficient students," Jackson said.

Pitts also objected to an opinion piece written by VanOrden that called the Indian Princess pageant "shallow" and "destructive."

VanOrden said Pitts also questioned the use of the words "bastardized" and "hell" in the issue. Profanity is specifically banned in the school's board's publication policy.

But VanOrden said "bastardized" is not a swear word in the context of the opinion piece. Bastardized, according to American Heritage Dictionary, can either mean to lower in quality or character or to declare someone a bastard.

She also said the word "hell" was used in a quote from a student -- "It was hell" -- in describing his experience at military boot camp in Fort Jackson, S.C., where four of his friends died in a storm. VanOrden said she questions why the principal said the word was inappropriate, because it is used in her history class when students read "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."

As a result of the controversy surrounding the latest issue, Thomas voluntarily resigned, Jackson said.

Smoke Signals' former adviser, Amy Riley -- now a professor at the University of West Georgia and part-time reporter for a local newspaper, the

Times-Herald -- said she is acting as a mentor for the student staff. Riley acted as the paper's adviser from 2003 until this past June. She said she thinks the principal used the latest issue as an excuse to control the paper.

"My concern is that the editorial board is selected by the adviser," she said. "I would feel better about it if it were all students. My other concern is that the final decision will be up to her and not the students."

Pitts' decision brings to light a sharp contrast between the school board's policy and the newspaper's regarding who has final authority over the content of the paper. The school board policy states that student publications are not public forums and the administration "may exercise control over student expression" by not permitting speech that is "ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased, prejudiced, vulgar or profane, or unsuitable for immature audiences."

But Smoke Signals has declared itself an "open forum" in its masthead since the fall of 2006. In practice, the students previously made all content decisions and no administrators read the paper before publication, Riley said.

Whether the paper is a forum is important because it determines the legal standard administrators must meet before they can censor the paper.

School-sponsored papers that are not forums are governed by the Supreme Court's 1988 ruling in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. In Hazelwood, the court ruled that administrators can censor school-sponsored speech if it interferes with school's "basic educational mission."

Riley said that because Smoke Signals has acted as a forum since 2003, it falls under the more protective Tinker standard, and the school board policy does not apply.

"The school board policy is very restrictive," Riley said. "But they still have to adhere to the Constitution."

Although Riley believes that the Tinker standard should apply for Smoke Signals, she said even under Hazelwood the school's actions are not justified.

Hazelwood states that a "mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint" does not permit a "blanket censorship authority." Schools "must accommodate some student expression even if it offends them or offers views or values that contradict those the school wishes to inculcate."

In other words, Hazelwood does not allow administrators to censor student speech just because they disagree with it.

According to VanOrden, that's exactly what Pitts did.

"I don't think anything in the paper met the Hazelwood standard," she said.

VanOrden organized a Facebook group called "Let Freedom Ring for Smoke Signals" with 719 global members to date. She also is organizing a First Amendment rally outside of nearby Newnan's old courthouse on Oct. 28.

In the meantime, VanOrden said she would meet with the new adviser and consider her options. She said she is prepared to take legal actions if necessary.

"I'm not backing down," she said.

East Coweta High School, Georgia, news, Smoke Signals