SMOKE THIS: School pulls papers, objecting to article on hookah health effects
Globe High School’s student newspaper The Papoose was not under prior review when the 2007-08 school year began. But that changed on Dec. 7, when school officials confiscated 700 papers.
The incident led to a change in advisers, caused the student editor to lobby for a new publications policy and spurred a public disagreement between editors and administrators over what actually caused the censorship.
Co-Editor Nathan O’Neal said staff followed regular procedure when they gave the then-adviser a week to review the Dec. 7 issue. But when the adviser never completed the review, editors printed the paper anyway. Administrators pulled the papers before the staff could distribute them.
In a Feb. 7 Phoenix New Times article, student editors O’Neal and Shelby McLoughlin said Principal Sherrill Stephens told them he confiscated the papers because of one “inappropriate” headline and an editorial.
The editorial, by O’Neal, said there was a “lack of motivation” at the school, and a headline included the word “Whudafxup,” quoting from a TRUTH campaign the writer was criticizing. TRUTH is an anti-smoking campaign from the American Legacy Foundation, which runs ads on the morning TV broadcast at Globe High School.
But after the New Times article ran, the district’s interim director of business operations, Robert Miller, issued a statement on the school’s Web site that said the papers were taken because of a front-page photo of someone smoking from a mouthpiece and an accompanying article on hookahs.
Miller’s statement said the person on the front page could have been smoking tobacco, marijuana or meth. He said in his opinion, the article was about how to build and use a hookah or bong. And the article included interviews from students under the age of 18, who cannot buy tobacco legally.
“Even if the article was merely abut the use of tobacco products, quotes by high school students using such products illegally could have exposed them and their parents to unnecessary and embarrassing scrutiny,” he said in the press release.
O’Neal said Miller “publicly discredited” O’Neal and McLoughlin to all district employees via e-mail and to the community through press releases and the radio by saying they misled the New Times. Both editors told the paper that they would not pursue the issue legally because they were getting ready to graduate and were ready to study journalism in college.
O’Neal told the SPLC in an e-mail that the hookah article was relevant to the student body and was written as an objective, informative piece — not as a way to promote drug use.
The article discussed how hookahs are becoming a trend, included information on the key parts of a hookah, and included several dangers of hookah smoking, including warnings from the World Health Organization.
“Considering the surplus of detrimental effects and risks to hookah-smoking, one would question why high school students insist on partaking in such a potentially dangerous form of recreation in substitute of traditional cancer-causing cigarettes,” the article read.
Miller told the SPLC that attorneys for the district advised administrators that two previous Supreme Court decisions made the censorship “prudent and allowable” — 1988’s Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier and 2007’s Morse v. Frederick.
Hazelwood said school officials generally may censor items in school-sponsored outlets if they can present a reasonable educational justification for doing so and if they have not traditionally allowed students to make final content decisions. Morse said schools may punish student speech that advocates the use of illegal drugs.
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the SPLC, said the administration’s justification is not legally sufficient under either Hazelwood or Morse.
“The Supreme Court has been quite clear that, even after Morse, student speech retains First Amendment protection and that the burden is on the censor to show that the speech will genuinely impair the school’s educational function,” he said. “Schools can’t properly invoke Morse to scour their news pages of every story that merely mentions drugs.”
Still, the administration devised a new procedure that involves Dean of Students Cindy Parravano reviewing content before the paper is printed.
She said she volunteered to review the paper because she has a “good rapport with the kids.” The adviser cannot make it in on Saturdays when students put the monthly paper together.
“If I felt there was an inappropriate article I would talk with the editor,” she said, adding that there has been no tension between her and the students.
O’Neal said he met with Stephens and Superintendent Timothy Trent Feb. 22 to propose a district policy that protects students against what he calls “blatant censorship and protects our individual rights.”
Trent told the SPLC that he would be meeting with Stephens and student journalists to work out a policy, but he said if an article could be considered “borderline,” there is a risk it might not run.
Parravano and O’Neal confirmed there has been no official policy change. According to the Arizona School Boards Association Web site, Globe Unified School District has a Student Publications policy that states, “Students shall be required to submit publications to the Superintendent for approval prior to distribution.” But Trent said he was unaware of a current policy regarding student publications.
O’Neal said there have been no further problems with the administration.
“I know that things could have gotten more heated than they had if we had stayed and argued,” he said.
Cindy Allen, managing editor of Oklahoma’s Enid News & Eagle, is involved in her community’s “High School Media Day,” where local media professionals talk to students about their careers.
“Administrators don’t care about journalism, quite frankly,” she said in an e-mail to the SPLC. “They don’t respect journalists and, by and large, I think they fear journalists.”
Allen said while she understands why the hookah article worried Globe administrators — saying students could have written an op-ed piece about the dangers of using hookahs — she feels they were “cowardly” for pulling the paper.
“What we have here and elsewhere are classic cases of administrators not wanting to take the ‘heat’ for anything, much less an item appearing in a school newspaper.”
She said local newspapers should be advocates for student journalists. Referring to columns by other professional journalists who defend administrators in cases like Globe’s, she said it does not help students when their daily papers are “complacent about what they are going through.”
She suggested student journalists approach their school board at the beginning of the year to introduce the staff, and ask to attend a meeting to make a presentation about the journalism program and “take the initiative to start something constructive.”
“Administrators need to get more education and training on the role a newspaper plays in their school and in their students’ critical thinking skills,” she said. “This requires, however, a commitment to journalism programs by providing knowledgeable and trained advisers — not just an empty suit who doesn’t have extra duty at this time.”
reports, Spring 2008