Principal demands tattoo ads be pulled from student newspaper

MISSOURI -- After requiring the removal of an article and editorial about tattoos from the student newspaper of Timberland High School in Wentzville, Mo., Principal Winston Rogers is now insisting the staff remove all previously approved tattoo ads, for which they have a full-year contract.

Cutting the ads will cost The Wolf's Howl a few hundred dollars, according to Editor-in-Chief Nikki McGee. She said Rogers' original reason for pulling the article and editorial was that tattoos fall under the category of "drugs, alcohol and etc.," and is censorable according to Timberland High School's student publications policy. McGee said she had previously requested clarification of the "etc." in the policy with no answers.

Under the policy, Rogers can censor materials that could cause "substantial and material disruption or obstruction of any lawful mission, process or function of the school." But McGee said Rogers told her he wants to see articles in the paper that "pique" students' interests, which is what she thought she was doing.

"Although in the past I've asked for a list of things that we can't cover, he never gave me one," McGee said. "He said 'no topics were off limits because anything could be covered professionally.' "

McGee said she is frustrated by Rogers' action after the amount of time spent compiling the original tattoo spread, and the amount of money spent on the yearlong advertising contract.

When the initial spread was pulled by Rogers, he refused to give the staff an explanation, claiming it was "the principal's discretion." But when the paper's adviser notified him that the Hazelwood standard requires school officials provide justification for censorship, he said he made the decision to cut all tattoo press because of age. Rogers did not respond to calls by press time.

"I realized that, because of the age requirement on it, that it was probably inappropriate for our students," Rogers told the Suburban Journals in St. Louis, Mo. "The majority of our students are not old enough to get tattoos by themselves. We don't advertise cigarettes. We don't advertise alcohol."

The newspaper staff hosted a Coffee Party Protest -- its version of political "tea party protests" -- at a local Starbucks Oct. 23 to protest what is happening and to discuss taking further action. In addition to getting local press attention, McGee said high school advisers statewide are showing support for Timberland's fight against the censorship, and even going as far to discuss proposing a Student Free Expression bill for Missouri, to prevent the prior review that was made lawful by the Supreme Court's ruling in the 1988 case Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier.

"Missouri is the home of Hazelwood, and it's long been high on our list of priority states," said Mike Hiestand, legal consultant for the Student Press Law Center. "I know there have been a few formal attempts to get legislation passed. There definitely are people there that want this done, and have shown inclination to stick with it."

Hiestand said it is unfair of school officials to take advantage of publication policies.

"They are just so broad that they can be used to censor almost anything," he said.

For More Information:

  • Principal censors newspaper's articles about tattoos News Flash, 10/15/2009

  • Missouri, Mo, news, The Wolf's Howl, Timberland High School, Wentzville