Southern High newspaper folds over censorship

Students, principal fought about criticism of schools

May 04, 2002|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Southern High School's student newspaper has been shut down by its staff after the principal - who objected to an issue that contained criticism of the school system - said that future issues couldn't be published without his approval.

Students say Principal Thomas Stephens is trying to cover up problems at the school, which they wrote about in a subsequent issue that was not sanctioned by the school and was circulated unofficially.

The cover of that issue pictured a student holding a sign saying "I've Been Censored" and included articles describing chaos in the hallways, no soap or toilet paper in the bathrooms, and other poor or unsafe conditions.

School system spokeswoman Vanessa Pyatt said this week that Stephens - who did not respond to repeated requests for comment - had been instructed to refer questions to her. She said school officials are investigating the matter, including the district's policy on student media rights.

But the situation has some staff, students - and at least one public official - fuming.

"We weren't printing lies, we were printing the truth," said Matthew Curtian, 17, a senior who works for The Bulldog. "That's the basic point of a newspaper: to print the truth. Basically, [the principal] doesn't want the truth to come out."

The staff of The Bulldog, whose slogan is "Knowledge is Power," has decided not to publish again unless it can print what it wishes.

"We all agreed if we can't do it the way it's supposed to be done, we're not going to do it at all," said Tara N. Williams, Southern's journalism teacher and an adviser to the newspaper.

Williams' students wrote letters last week to the school system's chief executive officer, the school board chairwoman, Mayor Martin O'Malley and other elected officials to complain about what they called censorship. State Sen. George W. Della Jr., who received letters from the students, asked Maryland's branch of the ACLU this week to investigate.

"I am livid about this," said the Baltimore Democrat. "Unless these young people were printing some inflammatory, outrageous, distorted story, it's a violation of the law. This is America. This isn't the Taliban. I mean, give me a break here."

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center based in Virginia, said that, even if a school system has no specific policy protecting student media rights, administrators must have, by law, a "reasonable educational justification" for censoring a newspaper's contents.

"Review [by the principal] may be permissible, but censorship based on that review is not `anything goes,'" Goodman said.

The controversy began with the publication of February's Bulldog, a special edition called "New School Blues," which was devoted to the planned transformation of Southern into the so-called Digital Harbor High School.

The new school, which is being phased in beginning with the ninth grade this fall, has become a topic of controversy among some staff, students and parents, who feel that students there are being written off.

The newspaper included a page titled "Southern's students speak," in which two students were critical of the school system's plans.

"The CEO is doing so much for the new school, what about the old school that needs improvement?" wrote one. "The CEO is trying to make the new schools as well as herself look good."

Another student described the plan as "unfair." A third offered a positive view, saying that the restructuring "is and will always be the best thing to happen to Southern High's future students and graduates."

The publication also contained interviews with several teachers who said that construction at Southern has disrupted teaching.

After the February issue was published, the faculty advisor said, Stephens told her that subsequent issues would not be printed unless he reviewed them first.

The next issue - with the "I've Been Censored" picture on the front - was later reviewed by the English department head, who, according to Williams, said the cover "wouldn't fly."

The students decided not to publish without their original cover, so Williams made about 40 copies and later posted one on her classroom door.

Stephens asked her to take it down, she said, but she refused. It was later taken down anyway, she and other students said.

"He's trying to tell us what we can say and what we cannot say," Brandon Gorham, a member of the newspaper staff, said of Stephens. "We have freedom of the press and freedom of speech. He's trying to make the school look all `goody two-shoes,' and this school really is not up to par at all."

Alison Czerwinski, a junior who wrote an article for the March issue titled "Southern Sucks," which compared the school to a jail, summed up the dispute this way in a letter to officials: "Censoring all of our opinions was just the principal's way of covering himself so that no one would find out all of the rotten things that are going on in this school."

Curtian, the senior, said Stephens took a copy of the March issue from one of his friends a few weeks ago and threatened disciplinary action against anyone caught with it.

"I asked him why he was taking it," Curtian said. "He said he doesn't want that garbage floating around Southern High School."

Sun staff writer Allison Klein contributed to this article.

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