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Principals can wield stamp of a censor

Blake High School student journalists Asli Omur and Sunny Boyd are excited and a bit nervous about a story they are writing concerning drug use in their Tampa school.

It is scheduled to appear next month in the school newspaper, the Blaze, and it probably will. Blake is a school that generally allows students to write what they choose.

But such a story would never fly at Bloomingdale High School at the other end of Hillsborough County. Administrators there review each story before it is published. Negative articles are typically censored, including one recent story about the poor performance of the school's football team.

"Right now," says Bloomingdale newspaper editor Elizabeth Shows, "we're pretty much a newsletter to parents."

The two extremes show how tenuous free speech rights are for student journalists in public schools.

Some principals view school newspapers as little more than publicity tools. They squash any story that could make the school look bad.

Yet other schools, such as Blake and Boca Ciega High School in Gulfport, give students the freedom to pursue a wide range of stories, even on topics as controversial as birth control and weapons in school.

They just want to be sure the articles are factual, fair and researched.

"As long as the information is accurate, I don't tell them what to publish," says Barbara Paonessa, the principal at Boca Ciega High.

Censorship incidents at two local high schools in recent weeks put a spotlight on the conflict between free speech and student journalism.

But the issue is not new.

In 1993, administrators at St. Petersburg High halted distribution of the school's Palmetto & Pine because they objected to the headline on a story about sexual harassment.

Four years later, at St. Petersburg's Northeast High School, the distribution of more than 1,000 copies of the Nor'easter was delayed because of a story about the school's future. When the issue finally came out, a cover sheet clarified the story, which administrators said was misleading.

More recently, administrators at Plant High School in South Tampa delayed distribution of the school paper because of a column advocating condom availability at the prom.

And at Leto High School in Town 'N Country, the principal censored an editorial by a student who objected to a teacher selling flag decals to students in exchange for extra credit.

In Hillsborough, principals have carte blanche to censor.

"Principals are ultimately responsible for all publications," says assistant superintendent Randy Poindexter. "If they feel something is offensive or in poor taste, they can withhold the article or publication of the newspaper."

Such censorship has increased since 1988, when the U.S. Supreme Court gave school officials the right to prior review of student newspapers.

Now many principals believe they can censor stories for any reason, says Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va.

"It's a system that breeds petty dictators," he says.

But the Supreme Court didn't take away the First Amendment rights of students, it just limited them, Goodman says.

Principals can review publications, but they still must give a reasonable educational justification for their censorship, he says.

"We've got a generation of high school students who believe free speech belongs to people with the most power," Goodman says.

Students and advisers need to educate themselves and stand up for their rights, says Releah Lent, a former English teacher at A.C. Mosley High School in the Florida Panhandle. She was fired as adviser to the student newspaper in 1998 after encouraging the staff to operate as an open forum for student expression.

"Students have First Amendment rights just as adults do," says Lent, who received a $120,000 settlement from the school district. She recently published a book about the incident called At the Schoolhouse Gate: Lessons in Intellectual Freedom.

Some school newspaper advisers, including Terry Sollazzo at Hillsborough's Wharton High, think the problem comes down to education.

If more principals and advisers were aware of their responsibilities, she says, there would be less disparity and more press freedom at schools.

Too many newspaper advisers are teachers with little or no journalism experience, she says. They take the job for the extra stipend it provides.

"They have to seek people with experience," says Sollazzo, a director with the Florida Scholastic Press Association. "You wouldn't field a football team with an art teacher."

Bloomingdale newspaper adviser Carol Lopez says her students, fearing censorship, have turned to stories outside the school and community. They now rely heavily on lighter articles about movies and music.

"The administration wants things that are positive and reinforce that everything is wonderful at the school," Lopez says. "It frustrates me enormously."

Shows, the Bloomingdale editor, says an editorial she wrote on the school's physical condition was censored. She is waiting to hear about another one she submitted that questions the lack of funding for the journalism program.

"Some things are not tasteful to put into a high school newspaper," she says. "But some things are relevant."

Some students have learned to function under the watchful eye of administrators. Wharton High journalist David Clementi says he routinely submits controversial articles to the principal.

But press freedoms should still extend to teenagers, he says.

"Why not here?" says Clementi, 17. "Does the First Amendment have to start when we're 18 and out of school?"

In some cities, students have reacted to censorship by posting their stories on the Internet. Several Web sites are devoted to banned student writing.

Blake's newspaper adviser, Deborah Van Pelt, who previously worked for the St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune, says that if students are taught the basics of journalism and the responsibility that goes with it, they should be allowed to use their skills and test their news judgment as part of the learning process.

"I wish everybody would chill out a little bit and let kids . . . practice honest journalism," she says. Free speech "is a part of a democratic society. It should be a vital part of a high school community."

_ Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or