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Quite a lesson

What are they teaching in school these days?

Up at Albemarle High School in Charlottesville, you can learn about the nine amendments to the Constitution in the Bill of Rights.

Nine amendments? Yep, at Albemarle High, they apparently don’t have much regard for that first one.

Here’s what happened last month: The student newspaper, The Revolution, published an editorial by the incoming editor.

The principal, Jay Thomas, didn’t like it. Some of the faculty didn’t like it. So the papers were destroyed. The principal’s rationale: There was a typo in the headline, and he was worried about “the impact” a controversial article would have on the author. The paper was reprinted two weeks later without the offending piece.

So what was the controversy? Did the new editor, Ellie Leech, advocate the legalization of marijuana? No. Did Leech write about teen pregnancy or, say, back the distribution of condoms? Nope again.

She wrote that student athletes who participate in school-sanctioned sports should not be required to take physical education classes. The piece, entitled, “Student’s P.E. groans might be warranted,” is available here.

Apparently the P.E. department at Albemarle High interpreted that as criticism, squawked and set in motion the destruction.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in the 1988 decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, ruled that public high schools can control, even censor, the content in student publications if the action is “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

Courts have cited the Hazelwood test to stop articles in high school newspapers on the two topics cited above, drug decriminalization and teen sexual activity.

And here? Well, the principal, Thomas, cited the typo (Sean Cudahy, the outgoing editor, admitted the word “warranted” was misspelled in the original paper) and concern for the writer. But Cudahy told The Hook, Charlottesville’s alternative weekly, that those reasons were not aired at a meeting with Thomas and Kim Aust, the paper’s faculty adviser. And Leech said she wasn’t worried about the “impact” of any controversy and that she could take the heat.

Aust defended the school’s action by noting that the piece caused a “disruption to the educational process,” particularly in P.E. classes. Potentially a valid reason, but Leech’s pen is pretty powerful if it can stop gym class with a single stroke.

Adam Goldstein, a lawyer with the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, told the Charlottesville newspaper, The Daily Progress, that this is “one of the silliest censorship cases I’ve ever seen.” Cudahy and Leech would have a good lawsuit, he added.

Proof that the students at Albemarle High may have more common sense than some of their elders: Both students said they do not plan to sue. They also said nice things about Thomas and Aust, even if they disagreed with what they did. Cudahy, who graduated, will study journalism at American University. He’ll have quite a tale to tell when he gets to college.

Thomas, Aust and the P.E. department have to be glad that this all went down just before the summer break. In prepping her story menu for the fall, Leech actually can breathe just a little easier. She now has a lead for her first issue.

Aust called the episode a “good learning experience” for the student journalists. Perhaps, although you’d have to ask the students exactly what it was they learned.

All this was going on at a high school in Charlottesville. Wait a minute. Isn’t that where Thomas Jefferson came from?

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