By Liz Bravacos and Meghan Morris, News Editor and Assistant Managing Editor
Freedom of speech at the high school level has, for decades now, been a precarious right. Every day, school administrators across the country are forced to decide where to draw the line between what types of speech are permissible, and what types must be restricted for the “greater good.”
Sometimes it comes in the form of a logo on a student’s T-shirt. Sometimes it comes in the form of a racial or ethnic slur spoken while passing through the hallway. And sometimes it comes in the form of the content found in a high school newspaper.
Over the past four months, senior Seth Zweifler, current editor-in-chief of The Spoke, and Henry Rome, a freshman at Princeton University and former editor-in-chief of The Spoke, have been engaged in a series of discussions with the Tredyffrin/Easttown School Board and District concerning a revised policy that defines the role of student publications, including The Spoke.
For their efforts throughout the process, both Zweifler and Rome were recently awarded with the 2009 Courage in Student Journalism Award—a level of recognition that is widely considered to be one of the highest national honors a high school reporter can receive. The award is sponsored by the Arlington, Va.-based Student Press Law Center, a group that provides legal advice and assistance to high school and college journalists.
“I couldn’t be more humbled to be receiving this award, but I think it would be doing our readers a disservice if they didn’t know what it was really for,” Zweifler said.
In May, the T/E Policy Committee, a subcommittee of the full Board of School Directors, announced a new directive to revise and update district Policy 5332, Student Publications—one that was last reviewed in 1994.
“The review of 5332 was prompted by a regular cyclical review that the board has undertaken of all the policies,” said Liane Davis, policy committee chair. “The policy committee has on its agenda every year a list of policies to review. We began taking a look at the 5000 series, of which 5332 is just one policy; we began looking at those in April or May of 2008.”
Among other things, the initial proposal required the student newspaper to avoid content written “in poor taste as a reflection of the school and its student body” and established mandatory administrative prior review—a system in which the school principal must read and approve all articles prior to publication. These potential changes sparked a community-wide outreach program, led by Zweifler and Rome.
“We’re trying to protect the newspaper using a lot of the skills we’ve learned as journalists; we’re always straightforward and honest. People respect what we say,” Rome said. “We’re arguing a particular viewpoint here, that journalists are entitled to their First Amendment rights.”
Ken Roos, T/E School District Solicitor, was involved with the initial crafting of policy revisions. Roos explained several reasons for the changes that were made to Policy 5332, citing incorrect legal standards that were included in the original 1994 policy.
“[Language in the original policy like] ‘morally objectionable to the community at large’ is not a correct standard,” Roos said. “So the policy, as written, was out of date and was wrong.”
“I think all of us realized that the  policy was inconsistent with certain legal standards that had changed over time, but the fact that an 86-word policy evolved into seven pages of regulations raised some eyebrows,” Zweifler said. “We published certain stories last year that ruffled some feathers, and it’s hard for me—as a student—to look at these changes without thinking that a possible impetus was a response to that content.”
Examination of the Pennsylvania State Board of Education’s regulations for student publications, as well as Roos’s own experience in representing school districts, allowed Roos to work with the district to create what he said is a legally acceptable policy with regulations.
Since the June 30 meeting, various drafts have been presented, each with the ultimate goal of reconciling the interests of all involved parties, said Davis, of the policy committee.
Information about the revision of the policy spread quickly throughout the community. In early July, local media—most notably Main Line Suburban Life—covered the review extensively. Main Line Suburban Life ran a front-page article, as well as numerous guest commentaries, on the issue.
“I’m a big believer in the freedom of the press, even if it’s just a school newspaper,” said Tom Murray, executive editor of Main Line Suburban Life.
However, some school board members voiced concern over the media’s treatment of the situation.
“I think the assumption was made that there was some dissatisfaction with The Spoke and then I think there was also a rush to make sure that nothing was changed,” Davis said.
Through this type of media exposure, as well as a letter writing and online activism campaign, Zweifler and Rome raised awareness throughout the community about the proposed policy and its potential effects on The Spoke.
“It rarely works as well as it did at Conestoga. There’s an excellent alumni network and excellent community support, which comes from having such a great journalism program,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.
Letters written by supporters of The Spoke did not go unnoticed by school board members. Communication between the policy committee, school administrators and members of The Spoke was frequent throughout the summer, according to all involved parties.
Conestoga Principal Amy Meisinger worked with The Spoke’s faculty advisers—Susan Houseman and Cynthia Hyatt—throughout the review process in order to ensure that any changes made to current practice would be done with their knowledge and approval, she said.
“[Communication] was something that was important to me because I wanted to make sure that they were included in the process from the beginning,” Meisinger said.
Members of the community had multiple opportunities to share their opinions about revisions to the policy. T/E Superintendent Dan Waters said the district’s system of open communications is in place for a reason.
“People certainly had the opportunity to give their input. Changes were made after that input was given,” Waters said. “I would say the process worked as designed—it’s finding what the common community sense is of the school board and [getting] information back from the community.”
A first reading and approval of the revised policy occurred at a regular school board meeting on Sept. 21. The policy can be formally adopted at the next school board meeting, scheduled for Oct. 26.
Zweifler said the adoption of a revised Policy 5332 looks promising.
“I think it’s very rare that you see something work out as well as it did here, in terms of our personal activism, in terms of the way community members and district officials were willing to listen to us throughout the entire process,” Zweifler said. “I’m truly looking forward to another year of exemplary scholastic journalism here at Conestoga.”
Liz Bravacos can be reached at email@example.com.
Printed originally on pages 1 and 4 of The Spoke’s Oct. 16, 2009 issue.