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Administrators censored teen pregnancy info, student editor says

May 17, 2006

MICHIGAN -- A student magazine editor said he is considering his legal options after school officials censored content in a teen pregnancy story that ran earlier this month.

''We know it's censorship,'' said Zane McMillin, editor in chief of The Comets' Tale, an award winning magazine at Grand Ledge High School. ''I feel the need to pursue action against them. Now they think they can get away with it.''

McMillin said administrators removed telephone numbers of pregnancy counseling and abortion providing groups and changed a summary of Michigan law dealing with abortion. The information was supposed to run alongside a story on teen pregnancy and abortion in the May 3 issue of the magazine.

Principal Richard Pochert said school officials removed the telephone numbers and changed the abortion law summary to comply with Michigan law. He said school policy gives him the ability to edit the magazine.

''All material has to have prior approval of the faculty adviser and the school principal,'' Pochert said. ''There are strict limitations on what schools can do regarding the dissemination of information on agencies that perform or make referrals for abortion.''

Pochert said if he allowed the student newspaper to print the abortion and pregnancy groups' telephone numbers, the school would have been out of compliance with state law. Because Pochert said the publication is ''school sponsored,'' he said it is a representation of the high school and the public school system as a whole.

''On one side, that may be viewed as censoring,'' he said. ''I view it as complying with Michigan law.''

But Jane Briggs-Bunting, an attorney who has been advising McMillan, said the principal's interpretation of the law is ''nonsense.''

''There is a prohibition in Michigan of teaching about abortion in class, but a newspaper is not the curriculum of the school,'' she said. ''The phone numbers they censored were from literature that the students got from the counseling center office in the building.''

Briggs-Bunting, who is also the director of the journalism school at Michigan State University, questioned administrators' right to censor a magazine which students have had control over in the past.

''This newspaper is a limited public forum and has not been subject to prior review in more than 24 years,'' Briggs-Bunting said. ''They never pulled this sort of stuff at this school district before.''

Although there may be a board policy that says administrators have final responsibility for content, ''that's absolutely not what was being practiced, and what continues to be practiced throughout this situation,'' Briggs-Bunting said.

She said when school administrators interfere in a publication's editorial process, they open themselves up to liability for what is published. But when the decisions are left up to the students, the students are held responsible for their decisions.

Briggs-Bunting said Pochert ordered faculty adviser Jeremy Van Hof to turn over The Comets' Tale for prior review at the threat of his job.

''It's a classic case of an adviser being put between a rock and a hard place,'' she said. ''What the school district has done is extorted the students because of their loyalty to a good teacher.''

Van Hof said in an e-mail that he submitted the teen pregnancy story to administrators as a ''professional courtesy.''

''Ninety-nine percent of the stories the newspaper runs are not submitted for prior review,'' Van Hof said. ''I told the building administrators that this story was going to run. I had done so with other controversial stories in the past, simply to give the main office a heads-up so they would not be blindsided if any parents or students were to complain about the article.''

Van Hof declined to comment on who has final control over the magazine or if the magazine had been edited by administrators in the past.

Pochert said although he does not review every issue of the magazine, he expects Van Hof to alert him of any story that could elicit a reaction from the community. He said he would be sitting down with Van Hof to establish a more clear prior review policy.

''I believe very much in the First Amendment right and the freedom of the press,'' Pochert said. ''I also know there are things that students can put in a paper that might not be in compliance with the law or suitable for a school sponsored publication.

''While I understand their passion for freedom of the press, they also got a lesson: the press doesn't just print anything and everything. It has to go through extensive checking and be approved ... by those people that own the publication. I do believe the students are given a lot of support and encouragement to look at tough issues, but they also have to understand when they explore those tough issues, those are going to be more closely scrutinized at every level, especially when it concerns the public.''

Briggs-Bunting had a different take: ''We're suppose to be building the next generation for democracy. How do we do that when we are censoring them right and left? I don't believe the principal is a certified journalism teacher, and I don't think he should be making decisions about what is good journalism and what is not.

''It's a sad day for Grand Ledge schools and a blot on that principal's record.''

As for McMillan, the student editor, he feels like he was treated like ''an ignorant teenager'' and a ''stupid student'' throughout the situation.

''They went behind our backs, twisted our adviser's arm and required us to give them a copy of the story,'' McMillin said. ''I feel I've been stifled. I feel that my personal freedom of press and speech rights have been violated.

''And there's always going to be that lingering fear now.''

--by Evan Mayor, SPLC staff writer

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© 2006 Student Press Law Center

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