Though he questioned the wisdom of yanking the article, Frank LoMonte of the Student Press Law Center said the censorship was probably legal. The U.S. Supreme Court, in its 1988 decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, gave principals authority to censor student newspapers in many cases. But the student publications policy in Fauquier County is deeply troublesome, LoMonte said.
That policy doesn’t just give principals the right to pull articles from student publications — it makes the principal the editor. Here it is, in part:
Responsibilities of the School Principal (Editor)
The school principal is responsible for approving all publications in accordance with School Board policy and his judgment and discretion.
The Supreme Court has said principals — under certain circumstances — can censor student publications. But editors — as any editor will tell you — do more than just censor hot-button articles and decide what will not go in the newspaper. They decide what will go in the newspaper.
“That’s slam-dunk unconstitutional to declare the principal the editor,” said LoMonte. “Even under the Hazelwood ruling there are boundaries that schools aren’t allowed to cross .. [principals] can’t substitute their viewpoint for the viewpoint of the students.”
LoMonte also said the policy needlessly exposes the principal to a great deal of personal liability.
“If I were the principal, I’d run screaming from that policy,” he said. “It means you take personal, individual financial responsibility for anything that’s published.”
Superintendent Dave Jeck said the policy, passed in 2012, appears to be patterned after one put out by the Virginia School Boards Association, which is why you’ll nearly identical policies in other districts, like Alexandria, Charlotte County and Hanover County. Elizabeth Ewing, the director of legal and policy services for the Virginia School Boards Association, said no one has ever raised any issues about the publications policy and she does not believe it is unconstitutional.
“This policy is intended for use in a system in which the newspaper is a school publication and so the logical person at the school who is in charge is the principal,” she said.
As a practical matter, the Fauquier High School principal was not acting as the editor of the paper, and Jeck, the superintendent, said principals have neither the time nor the desire to take on that role. He believes that the matter is mere semantics, but said he is going to take a second look at the policy.
Marie Miller, the teacher who advises the Falconer, said she was operating under a previous policy, which compelled her to give the principal a heads-up when an article that could stir controversy was bound for publication. She was unaware that policy, which she helped write, had been replaced by the one currently on the books.
But the possibility that a principal could act as the editor — demanding, for example, that students pen an editorial in his favor — is problematic enough, LoMonte said.
“It may not be that he was purporting to act as the editor in this particular case, but just the existence of that policy imposes a chilling effect on the journalists,” he said.
School administrators elsewhere have stepped into roles traditionally reserved for editors. Take the case of Neshaminy High School, where student journalists deemed the name of the school mascot, “Redskins,” offensive and decided to no longer use it in the student newspaper. School administrators thought differently, and lashed out by punishing a student editor and the faculty adviser and ordered them to run an advertisement with the name.
For now, the Fauquier High student reporter who wrote the article, SaraRose Martin, and Miller are working to ensure that the censorship of the drug story does not set a precedent for future generations of Falconer reporters. It was the first article in 36 years to be censored from the award-winning student publication, which has tackled stories on students cutting themselves, transgender students and students coming out as gay. Martin’s article, which was ultimately published by a local news website, ended up informing a lot of grown-ups about a new drug trend they were previously unaware of.
“I learned so much about my rights, my human rights, my First Amendment rights,” Martin said. “People don’t take me seriously. People don’t take students seriously … because we’re kids.”
But, she said, “We have a lot of important things to say.”