“Have you met the girl from Constitution High School whose student newspaper was censored?”
This was my introduction to Madeline Clapier, a senior at the school who was attending the Constitution Day celebrations Tuesday at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Clapier came to hear Mary Beth Tinker speak about her brush with censorship on one of the first stops of the Tinker Tour, which this fall will travel throughout the eastern United States to speak with students about the First Amendment and civic education.
Talking with Tinker after the talk, Clapier explained that she’s been vocal in protesting budget cuts across the Philadelphia school system, the result of a $304 million budget shortfall. Clapier has attended protests and published a photo essay illustrating the overcrowding she sees in her classes. In the process of applying for colleges, she’s frustrated she doesn’t have more access to guidance counselors.
But back to the newspaper.
At the start of her junior year, Clapier and four other students wanted to start a student newspaper. The student newspaper at the school, CHS Chronicles, had more-or-less died at the end of the previous school year after the adviser transferred to another school and the students involved graduated. The new group of students, in conjunction with the school’s journalism class, voted on a new name, 1787 News, Clapier said. Students in the journalism class submitted articles and the five students served as the new publication’s editorial board outside of class. The purpose of the class was to teach journalism, not produce the paper, Clapier said.
The staff put together its first print issue in October, which they submitted to Principal Thomas Davidson for prior review. Davidson said in a phone interview that he was “very much impressed and happy with the quality of the first edition,” and he gave the OK to have the papers printed. A few days later, Davidson went back to the students with a concern, and asked them to reconsider the name. The problem, he said, was with the school’s constitution.
When Constitution High School was founded in 2006, it was set up with a focus on social sciences. “They wanted to make it a laboratory for democracy,” said Marc Brasof, who was one of the original teachers at the school and who is now an assistant professor of educational leadership at Arcadia University working on a dissertation about the school’s model of governance.
There’s the executive branch, made up of elected student leaders and the principal; a legislative branch, made up of a student house of representatives and a faculty senate; and the judicial branch, a nine member body with student and faculty representatives. The first class of students in 2006 held a constitutional convention where they established and voted on this system. They also established the school’s colors (appropriately enough, red, white and blue), its nickname (“the generals”) and its motto (“United we stand, divided we fall”). Each successive incoming class has held its own constitutional conventions to introduce customs of their own, which is how CHS Chronicles was established in 2007.
To Davidson, changing the name “unilaterally” and without the house and senate’s approval violated the school’s constitution. “I wanted to uphold the sanctity of the [school] constitution,” he said. Davidson said he offered to write up a bill that would change the name, but the students weren’t interested in taking it before the school legislators.
“We didn’t want to give the government precedent to change the content in our paper,” Clapier said. “So we refused that.”
In January, Davidson filed a notice that he intended to “sue” the 1787 News editors in school court over the name issue, calling it “arbitrary and undemocratic.”
“As Principal I am concerned about the potential erosion of customs and traditions that have been established as routine parts of our school culture,” Davidson wrote.
In court, the two sides presented their case. Clapier said she and two other staff members argued that requiring the paper to get approval from the school’s legislators violated their First Amendment rights.
Davidson argued that the school was bound to follow the school’s constitution. He cited the school district’s policy on student expression, which he said establishes his authority over the paper. The school district’s policy states that officials may censor content that is obscene, as well as “other objectionable material … that would interfere with school activities.” (Pennsylvania’s education code restricts the censorship authority of school officials, allowing censorship of student publications produced with school equipment if the content is either obscene or libelous or would cause a “substantial disruption or interference with school activities.” The Philadelphia district’s policy does not comply with the state code.)
Davidson also cited two U.S. Supreme Court decisions — Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District and Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. Tinker was important for establishing that students and teachers do not “shed their Constitutional rights to freedom of expression at the schoolhouse gate,” Davidson said.
“There are, certain restraints,” Davidson said, noting that Tinker allows schools to censor students under some circumstances. “My point was, it’s not like students have free will to express themselves [at school].”
Tinker allows schools to censor students when their speech creates a substantial risk of a material disruption to the school’s operation.
In Hazelwood, the Court said that within a curricular activity, a school “need not tolerate student speech that is inconsistent with its ‘basic educational mission.” The three-branch governance system at the school is a key part of the school’s educational mission, Davidson said. By changing the newspaper’s name without getting legislative approval, the students were undermining that mission. (By giving students the benefit of additional legal protection beyond what is recognized in federal law, the Pennsylvania education code largely neutralizes Hazelwood, however.)
Brasof, who observed the two sides’ arguments as well as the court’s deliberations, said Davidson’s argument focused more on the school constitutional questions, whereas the students argued that it violated their First Amendment rights and established a precedent of government interference with the press. Ultimately, the court decided in favor of Davidson. “The conclusion they came to, was if you wanted to enshrine something into the culture of the school, then it’s appropriate to pass a school bill,” Brasof said, adding that the decision “clarified” administrative procedure.
The school court ordered the student editors to either push legislation to change the name or stop publishing, and gave the paper 30 days to do so. Clapier said the staff felt strongly against getting the legislature’s approval. They considered continuing as an unofficial, independent publication, but ultimately decided against it because Clapier said the staff, mostly juniors, worried they’d face backlash.
Which is why in February, the staff penned a “goodbye” editorial, saying that the court had allowed “bullying and tyrannical oppression.”
“If our school were truly a microcosm of the American democratic and judicial system, the First Amendment would be fully protected,” the editorial stated. “The court system would not be used to enforce outdated traditions but rather to enforce the rules that most affect students’ daily lives. Countless rules are broken every day at our school and disrupt the peace of our learning environment. Students arrive to school late and face no consequences. Students don’t follow the dress code and face no consequences. Students break our school’s elevator and face no consequences. Yet when we took the initiative to improve our school community by creating a news website, we faced legal action.”
Carl Ackerman, one of the faculty judges and a history teacher at the school, said that even though the court ruled in favor of Davidson, the judges were all really supportive of the paper, noting that their decision wasn’t based on “the content of the paper.” After the ruling, some of the judges even volunteered to write a bill that would change the name, he said.
“This is the tragedy — everybody loved the newspaper, even the principal,” Ackerman said.
Davidson said he was disappointed the students quit. “I didn’t think that was a good reaction,” he said, adding that he felt here were important lessons to be learned by the process.
“In a democratic society, you don’t always get what you want,” Davidson said. “Sometimes the will of the people, as expressed by the [student] supreme court in this case, will decide against you.”
Ackerman said that when Davidson first asked him to put together the court to hear the case, he didn’t realize it would become as big of an issue at the school as it did. Several dozen students showed up to watch the hearing after school, and the name issue was probably the most talked-about government issue last year, he said.
“It was really neat to watch how passionate the students were,” he said, adding that it’s not always easy to get students interested in participating in student government, just as it’s not always easy to engage the general public in government issues that affect them. There’s not much money to do projects, and not many students want to or can stay after school to meet, he said — only three showed up to the first meeting this year.
“They’re pretty astute to see that it isn’t really democratic,” Ackerman said. “I mean, nobody votes for the principal.”
Ideally, there would be time carved out of the school day so that it was easier for students to participate in the school government, he said. That’s something he and other teachers are working on right now that he thinks will make the system stronger.
Clapier said she and the other editors have moved on to other issues now, but she thinks there are underclassmen interested in reviving the paper a third time. Davidson said he’s hopeful they will.
Despite the frustration over the court case, Clapier said she still is supportive of the school’s governing system.
“It makes it a lot more interesting,” she said. “It’s something that makes us really unique.”