Principal censors newspaper's articles about tattoos

MISSOURI -- Timberland High School Principal Winston Rogers is refusing to give the editors of the student newspaper an explanation for why he required replacement of a story in the second issue of their paper that included ads and an article about tattoos.

The original page included one story and an editorial, the story investigating the health risks associated with getting tattoos and the editorial discussing the meaning of tattoos. The students also obtained two tattoo parlor ads they wanted to publish. The principal initially prior reviewed and flagged all four elements for changes. Rogers requested that the students add quotes that portrayed the "conservative" side of the first article -- specifically from employers who are turned off by interviewees with tattoos. 

Though the students made the required changes, ultimately only the ads were permitted to print. The Wolf's Howl was distributed Oct. 9 with a final page that was pulled together with photos from the school's Homecoming at the last minute to avoid blank space.

"We went down Wednesday afternoon to talk to principal and he said he wasn't concerned about the articles, he just wanted to make sure we showed the other side of the story," said Nikki McGee, co-editor of The Wolf's Howl. "Thursday was our layout night, and we thought we were ready to go."

On Friday morning, Rogers reviewed the issue with his original edits included and decided the final page needed to be pulled, without providing any explanation.

"He asked us to just trust him, and that it was being pulled because of 'the principal's discretion,'" McGee said.

Rogers did not respond to calls by press time.

Last school year administrators at Timberland objected to students' decision to accept a church's ad with an anti-abortion message. After the ad initially appeared, administrators demanded that the students pull the ad from future editions and refund the church's payment. McGee said since last year's controversy, Rogers has required that he review each issue of the paper before it is distributed. However, the standard for high school publications set by the Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier

does require school officials show they have reasonable justification for censoring an article, according to Mike Hiestand, legal consultant for the Student Press Law Center.

"A huge mistake that many school officials make is that they believe Hazelwood gives them an unlimited license to censor," Hiestand said. "Hazelwood did lower the bar ... but it did not eliminate that bar. The problem that we have here is that [Rogers] has not provided any sort of justification for his censorship, and that's unlawful."

The Hazelwood standard does not require school officials to provide much information, but they have to provide at least some, Hiestand said.

Hiestand said that hopefully Rogers will realize he needs to provide the students with an explanation. McGee is worried because she believes hot topics like tattooing are what pique students' interests.

"Controversial topics really should not be avoided in the high school paper; especially controversial topics with reasonable coverage," McGee said. "I think it's extremely unfair with this tattoo subject ... all of our surrounding schools are covering it, and it's such a big trend of 2009, especially in regards to teens."

Missouri, news, The Wolf's Howl, Timberland High School