It took a strongly worded letter from First Amendment and journalism organizations—with the threat of a lawsuit–to get the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District to back down from its censorship of the Conestoga High School newspaper.
Ben Shapiro, the incoming editor for The Spoke newspaper, noted versions of the student destination map, which tell where seniors are going immediately after graduation, whether to college, to work, to the military, or taking a gap year. or going to a vocational school had been published by The Spoke every year since the 1960s.
Suddenly, in 2023 there was a problem with it.
Shapiro said Principal Amy Mesinger, the assistant principal and the English department chair, met with the school newspaper’s editors about the destination map after they asked permission to publish a questionnaire on Schoology, an official school website. The students had already posted it on the paper’s website and social media.
“She told us the district couldn’t support our senior map,” said Shapiro, a rising senior. “And no district resources could be used because the district believed it was harmful to students.”
Asked how it could be harmful to students, Shapiro said the principal said he believed “other students might judge them for what their post-high school was, whether that be a college that someone might not deem as like a ‘good school’ or someone was going to take a gap year if people have negative perceptions of gap years.”
“Basically, she was telling us that the district couldn’t support the map because of that,” Shapiro said. Shapiro said there was an equity argument because she talked about some people not getting into their first choice of college or being unable to afford it. In an email, she told Shapiro the information was “arguably discriminatory.”
But Messinger told him later it was actually for “mental health” reasons rather than equity.
“My stance on this is that it doesn’t matter why they don’t want us to publish, that their attempted censorship was the issue at hand,” said Shapiro. “And they were breaking not only school board policy but Pennsylvania state law and the First Amendment by telling us we couldn’t.”
Lawyer Lindsie Rank, with the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression [FIRE], told DVJournal that due to previously adopted board policies, Treddyfrin/Easttown falls under case law that offers robust protection for student journalists. However, some other districts may not.
In a letter that the Pennsylvania School Press Association also signed, the Student Press Law Center, and the Journalism Education Association, the principal told the students the map “does not align with the district’s equity goals” and that it “highlights individuals who can afford more prestigious colleges and that one student had cried to their guidance counselor out of concern over being judged if their peers saw what college they planned to attend.”
“This act of censorship defies district policy governing the relationship between school administration and student media, not to mention the First Amendment,” the letter said. “District policy and Pennsylvania state law prohibit Conestoga from acting against The Spoke for publishing content that, controversial among school officials and some students, poses no threat of causing a material and substantial disruption to the classroom or general order of the school.”
Shapiro said the students who run the newspaper were worried about getting into trouble.
“I mean, rightfully so,” said Shapiro. “I think my editorial board is very scared because we’re all about 15, 16, or 17-year-olds fighting our principal.”
Rank said FIRE would have taken legal action against the district if needed, but school officials backed down.
Chris Connolly, a district spokesperson, denied “equity” was involved in the map brouhaha.
“The Spoke is permitted to print the senior destination map as usual. There was not a discussion about equity as it relates to the map,” Connolly said.