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Censorship At Shelton High School?

by Eugene Driscoll | Jul 9, 2014 11:03 pm

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Posted to: Shelton, Education

A Shelton High School graduate said school headmaster Beth Smith is stepping far over the line when it comes to censoring Gael Winds, the school’s award-winning newspaper.

“Dr. Smith, who has been censoring our newspaper since 2013, has been doing so illegally,” Neel Swamy told the Valley Indy Tuesday.

Swamy just graduated from the school. He will be attending the University of Michigan later this year.

Swamy was the opinion editor at the Gael Winds during his senior year. He spent the last two months of his high school career researching federal case law on the First Amendment and how it applies to high school newspapers. His assertion is backed by a lawyer who is versed in the First Amendment and how it applies to student newspapers.

Smith, who reads the articles in the paper before they are published, edited the articles with an “iron fist,” Swamy said, often removing sentences that she interpreted as inappropriate.

Swamy detailed his frustration in a column published in the Undergraduate Times, an online publication.

Smith’s edits were often puzzling, Swamy said.

“The changes happened more and more, and the changes became less and less understandable,” Swamy said. “She removed lines from articles she thought would somehow upset students.”

Example — a writer attended a pirate-themed student council leadership conference, then wrote an article about the conference in pirate speak. Smith censored the word “booty,” Swamy said, even though the word was used in the dictionary, non-buttocks sense.

The last straw for Swamy came in May, when Smith removed teacher Carolyn Finley as the paper’s faculty adviser. Gael Winds writers past and present saw this as the headmaster’s attempt to get complete control over the publication.

The move prompted students to speak out at a Board of Education meeting in May.

Students still want Finley re-appointed. Finley is also fighting to get her position back, and is reportedly going to appeal to the state Department of Education. Click here for the latest on that controversy.

Swamy said he wrote an opinion piece in the June 2014 Gael Winds with a line that alluded to the fact student opinion was censored — but Smith censored the line, he said.

“I took the opinion that student opinion is not as free as it should be. She completely removed that,” Swamy said.

The following is a list of edits Swamy said Smith made. It includes an instance where Smith allegedly changed a person’s quote, which is a breach of basic journalism ethics.

The article continues after the document.

Censorship In Shelton?

School board chairman Mark Holden said Wednesday (July 9) that the student newspaper is put together as part of an academic class — journalism 1 and journalism 2.

Juniors usually take journalism 1, then become “editors” in journalism 2 the following year.

“I know there are some things that have been pulled because the feeling was it was not an appropriate topic for a school newspaper,” Holden said.

He said he has gotten blowback from students regarding Smith’s handling of the newspaper — but only in reference to Finley being removed this year as its adviser.

“And that’s Beth Smith’s call,” Holden said. “She gets to decide who teaches what in her building.”

He said he couldn’t recall students complaining about censorship of the newspaper, but welcomed anyone with concerns to bring them to the school board.

Smith and Burr did not return calls and e-mails for comment Tuesday and Wednesday.

However, Christine Chinni, a lawyer for the school district, sent a letter July 7 saying Smith is well-within her rights “in insisting on certain alterations and omissions from Gael Winds.”

The full letter is posted below and the article continues below.

Shelton BOE Lawyer Letter

First Amendment Violation?

Swamy said students talked to Smith in private, and also discussed the matter with members of the school board and Burr, the schools superintendent.

“We’ve taken all the steps to address this issue as per board of education protocol,” Swamy said.

Swamy and other students eventually reached out to the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va. for advice.

“There is a lawyer there who believes we have a strong First Amendment case,” Swamy said.

That lawyer is Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

In an interview with the Valley Indy Wednesday, LoMonte said based on Swamy’s description, Shelton High School is over-stepping its bounds when it comes to censoring its paper.

While a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case (Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier) gave school administrators broad powers to censor high school newspapers, the power to censor isn’t limitless.

“There has to be some legitimate educational purpose for the censorship,” LoMonte said. “There are times when schools can go too far (such as) when they are censoring for the purposes of image control.”

Outside of the First Amendment issues, LoMonte said censoring the Shelton High School paper without cause impairs learning.

The paper has won a slew of national awards, and, in the 2012-2013 school year, was named by the American Scholastic Press Association as one of the best student newspapers in the U.S.

But the prior review and edits from the headmaster isn’t exposing students to journalism — it’s public relations.

“The student wrote a line in a column about the oppressive atmosphere for the freedom of speech at the school — and that line was itself censored,” LoMonte said. “That is classic censorship for image control, and there is just no question that that type of censorship is unlawful.”

Click here to read a letter LoMonte sent to the school district last month.

LoMonte said having a high-ranking administrator review a newspaper before publication is a recipe for disaster, because the administrator isn’t going to take an objective eye to the articles.

The Valley Indy reached out to the Gael Winds incoming student editor for comment, but the e-mail wasn’t returned. The Valley Indy also sought out comment from any current Shelton students connected to the Gael Winds, but none contacted the publication.

What recourse does a junior or senior in high school have against an administrator, let alone the highest-ranking administrator in the school building?

“Students take their schools to court under the First Amendment fairly regularly,” LoMonte said. “It’s certainly not unheard of for students to take on authority in that way. After all, the students don’t work for the principal. It’s the other way around. The fact is, the principal is a public servant who works for the students, just like she does for all members of the community. As a public servant, she has to color within the lines of the First Amendment.”

LoMonte said his organization could get more involved in the Shelton High School issue if students organized and tried to file a claim.

However, LoMonte said he does not think it will come to that.

“We’re not talking about a backwater town where the people don’t understand how the First Amendment works,” he said. “We’re talking about a sophisticated town with well-educated residents. I think this will be resolved through discussions with the local board of education.”

Swamy said his chance to challenge the editorial process in court has passed since he is no longer a student. But his goal isn’t to cause a lawsuit.

“I’m really just trying to bring awareness to this issue because the Shelton community does not know what’s going on,” he said.

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