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High School Principal Orders Prior Review of Student Newspaper's Content

Local Matters


Published May 14, 2008 at 10:41 a.m.

In March, a faculty bandleader decided to pull the Middlebury Union High School jazz band from a competition at the Flynn Center for Performing Arts over suspicions that musicians were getting stoned before school-sanctioned jams.

You should write about this in our school paper, one band member suggested to Liam Kelley-St. Clair, a reporter for the MUHS's Tigers' Print.

And so he did. In the April 10 article, "How Do Teachers Handle Students Who Come to Class High?", senior Keith Watkins told Kelley-St. Clair that he had smoked weed on occasion before jazz band rehearsal. But, the trumpeter asserted, "I feel like our music wasn't affected at all."

The jazz band story wasn't the first controversial piece to appear in Tigers' Print. Earlier this school year, the paper covered vandalism at the Robert Frost summer home in Ripton and a new administrative policy on the Pledge of Allegiance.

But the band story prompted a change in editorial policy by Middlebury Union High Principal Bill Lawson, who announced he would immediately begin reviewing the paper's content 48 hours before it goes to press.

Lawson's decision has riled up a few parents in town and raised tensions between Lawson and journalism teacher Tim O'Leary, Tigers' Print's faculty advisor who also happens to be the president of the local teachers' union. O'Leary said last Friday that Tigers' Print was designed to be a "newspaper, not a newsletter," and that Lawson doesn't have the "pedagogical" right to screen its content.

"There's this real perception that things are going to be censored," O'Leary said.

Lawson maintains that publishing Watkins' name in the band story was a breach of confidentiality. He says he has "a pretty wide tolerance" for controversial material, "but when it comes to the point where it's going to be disruptive or injurious to a student, I have to exercise some authority."

In a landmark 1988 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that administrators can censor school-sponsored papers based on "legitimate pedagogical concerns." But Adam Goldstein, an attorney advocate from the Virginia-based Student Press Law Center, says administrators shouldn't censor student papers without first documenting that right in a student handbook - something Middlebury administrators have yet to do.

"Having your content reviewed when it wasn't before is detrimental," Goldstein said. "That's a chilling effect."

Tigers' Print is distributed as an insert to the Addison Independent. "It gives a student voice to our paper, and that's important," says publisher Angelo Lynn.

Tigers' Print was revived in fall 2006 by a small group of Middlebury parents that included Kelley-St. Clair's father, Kevin J. Kelley, a Seven Days contributor who teaches journalism at St. Michael's College.

For the first year, O'Leary recalled, it was purely extracurricular. Once the paper had established itself as a subversive "enigma," however, school administrators made it a for-credit class in order to exercise "control," according to O'Leary, who eventually became the sole faculty advisor. Although he has a Masters' degree from the Bread Loaf School of English, his only journalistic background was a pair of magazine subscriptions - to Newsweek and Sports Illustrated.

As it turns out, the Tigers' Print's next issue may be its last. Early enrollment in O'Leary's journalism class is low, Lawson said, and the English department is strapped for teachers. Peter Conlon, a former news editor for the Addison Independent, school board member and parent of two MUHS kids, said the paper's future is "unrelated" to the new editorial policy.

O'Leary, however, believes the administration may be trying to "punish" Tigers' Print for putting out a good product - an accusation Lawson rejects out of hand.

Liam Kelley-St. Clair plans to write for the student newspaper at New York University this fall.