By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — The UD-3 school board will consider a policy governing free speech for the Middlebury Union High School newspaper, while administrators will determine whether the paper — known as the Tigers’ Print — can be maintained as an English Department offering rather than being absorbed by the business department.
School leaders made those decisions on Tuesday evening after listening to around two hours of impassioned comments from students, parents and teachers who have had a hand in producing the Tigers’ Print. The student newspaper’s survival and level of autonomy have been in doubt since it published an article earlier this year on the subject of drugs in school. That article quoted a student, by name, who admitted showing up for classes under the influence of drugs.
Tigers’ Print writers and advisors said they believe publishing the student’s name lent more credence to the story on drug abuse. But some school administrators, including MUHS Principal Bill Lawson, said they believe the newspaper violated the student’s right to privacy by printing his name. Although he had read the material in the newspaper before publication, including the drug story, Lawson had kept a hands off policy.
The principal subsequently decided that the Tigers’ Print be pre-screened by the administration, for content and grammar, before being published.
The pre-screening mandate drew sharp criticism from student writers and their advisor, Tim O’Leary, an English Department faculty member who told UD-3 board members on Tuesday that morale at Tigers’ Print has plummeted with the loss of autonomy.
“I am the only adult in this room who has seen the implications of these mandates in the classroom,” said O’Leary. “Bitterness, sarcasm and apathy have filled these journalism students. This censoring process deters the free speech of students even before a topic brainstorming session begins and all the way through the final editing of the students’ paper. These mandates have hurt their self-esteem, self-perception and our learning process.”
Leo Evancie is one of the current Tigers’ Print writers. He said his interest in the school paper has increased steadily since last year, when he joked that one of the primary draws was “free donuts.”
“But it didn’t take me long to see a fantastic opportunity for me and for my friends,” Evancie said. “This has been an opportunity for us to have an uncensored voice in our school community — and because of our wide circulation — the town community.”
O’Leary said the student quoted in the now-infamous drugs-in-school article was asked three times prior to publication if he still wanted his name used.
“He argued that keeping his name in the article would bring attention to the issues, and he unequivocally remained committed to running the quote with his name,” O’Leary said.
He added it was unfortunate that the article’s intent to shine a light on substance abuse in school has instead morphed into a debate about the newspaper and censorship.
Diane St. Clair, the parent of a graduating senior and writer at the Tigers’ Print, said she feared pre-screening the content of the paper would discourage students from speaking freely about issues of importance to them.
“I firmly believe that towards the end of strengthening communication with our adolescents, one thing we cannot do is shut off avenues they have for free expression, nor should we censor them, no matter how subtly that may be done, because the things they say make us feel uncomfortable or make us, as adults, look bad,” said St. Clair.
“The Tigers’ Print … has given our students their own independent public voice,” she added. “By making their own editorial decisions, in conjunction with the paper’s advisor, they understand that they have to be accountable for these decisions. This is what journalists have to do every day.”
Nick Atherton, a student writer/photographer involved with the publication, said he and his colleagues had benefited from having free rein in doing their jobs as journalists. He believes administrative oversight will negatively affect their experiences as reporters.
“I feel as though the school is making a mistake in censoring the Tiger’s Print,” Atherton said.
“The threat of censorship can’t be ignored and it can’t be stopped,” he added. “If the school board wants the best possible experience, if it wants us to have the best possible education and we want the best possible product, we need to be left alone and we need to produce our own paper.”
Lawson argued that he, as a principal, has a responsibility to protect students — including protecting them from potentially incriminating themselves in a school-sanctioned newspaper.
“I have a duty and responsibility to protect students as far as privacy is concerned,” Lawson said. “That is my only interest.”
Lawson added he has not censored any material in the Tigers’ Print since he and Associate Principal Catherine Dieman began pre-screening the paper.
“I think I have a record of allowing a wide range of thought,” Lawson said. “I am not interested in curtailing thought; just the opposite.
“I understand that people make mistakes,” he added. “But part of educating, also … is we have to set reasonable expectations around issues of writing. I would like to think there is collaboration between the teachers and principal to do that.”
Plans call for Tigers’ Print to be offered next year, but as a publications course within the business department. Lawson said he had to make the scheduling switch based on recent budget cuts in the English department and pre-enrollment declarations for journalism.
Some parents, students and board members voiced concern that the Tigers’ Print would not get the English/writing instruction needed as a business course.
“The thought of it being marginalized into some sort of generic publications category I find very disappointing,” said Robert Cohen, a parent who helped resurrect the Tigers’ Print in 2006.
Lawson, at the urging of board members, will look back within the course scheduling list and budget to see if there is the flexibility to keep the Tigers’ Print within the English Department.
“The principal is faced with decisions and faced with situations, oftentimes balancing competing interests,” Lawson said. “I made an effort to try to do that (for the Tigers’ Print) with what I perceived to be the resources at my hand. If you are going to come back and give me more resources, that’s fine, you can do it. I was simply trying to make it work.”
The UD-3 policy committee was scheduled to meet on Wednesday, June 4, to draft a policy listing free speech parameters for student publications. The panel, in its deliberations, will need to consider U.S. Supreme Court case law as well as an added wrinkle; since it is circulated in the Addison Independent (a wider forum), the Tigers’ Print may not fall strictly within the speech parameters stipulated for school papers by the nation’s highest court.