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HSJ Headline News

Revising of Dalton Paper Raises Ire and Discussion

Sarah Maslin Nir
The New York (N.Y.) Times

October 26, 2010

 

Two weeks ago, reams of the Dalton School’s student newspaper, The Daltonian, were delivered in bulk to the private school’s doors on the Upper East Side. But few, if any, of those copies ever made it into homerooms or many students’ hands. School officials decided to confiscate the shipment, concerned with what they said was a misrepresentation of facts in a poll splashed across the cover that revealed the student body’s level of alcohol consumption.

Last November, after Justice Anthony M. Kennedy of the Supreme Court, who is a venerated defender of free speech, lectured at the school, his offices required that they vet an article about his visit before it was published in The Daltonian. In an article in The New York Times, Ellen Stein, who is the head of school, supported what school officials said was the wish of the justice’s office to make sure he was quoted correctly.

This time, student outrage was short-lived; the suppression was temporary. A week later, a new version of the newspaper and the offending article appeared. “While we approved the survey and its inclusion in The Daltonian in advance, surveys and other information must be reported accurately,” Jim Zulakis, the school’s spokesman, said in an e-mail message.

At issue was the title of a single column in one of two paragraphs that Mr. Zulakis said was altered after administrators signed off. The erroneous chart indicated that 80 percent of respondents said they did not drink “regularly,” when the survey question had asked whether students drink at all.

Rather than print a correction in the following issue, the school confiscated all copies and put out a revised version. (According to J.S. Printing, a company that produces newspapers for several other area private schools, a batch of copies for a high school the size of Dalton’s costs around $400, not including shipping.)

Still, the episode raised questions. “In the nonstudent setting, nobody would tolerate a rule that the government can step in and seize newspapers because some government actor decides the newspaper contains a mistake,” saidFrank D. LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center. “Nobody would tolerate that in the adult setting.”

Students had their own take. “I think they are worried about how other people would perceive Dalton,” said Idris Brewster, 16, a junior. “They are worried about the image of Dalton and it getting out that Dalton drinks a lot.”

Image control is nothing new at Manhattan’s elite schools. More than 25 years ago, officials at the Brearley School, led by the headmistress, Evelyn J. Halpert, tried to quash the publication of a poll on drug use in the school’s underground magazine, Samizdat. Named after a Soviet-era style of underground publishing, the student-run and -financed publication was created as a counterpoint to the officially sanctioned newspaper, The Zephyr.

The crude publication, not much more than stapled 8-by-11-inch sheets, said that around 40 percent of the senior class had tried marijuana, according to one of its founders, Katie Roiphe, now a professor of journalism at New York University. “It wasn’t a big exposé revealing that half the Brearley class was shooting heroin, or anything like that,” she said. “In our minds, the results are almost embarrassing because the results were so tame.”

Nonetheless, the reaction was explosive, she said, the publication was confiscated and students admonished. The climax was a painfully critical speech at the graduation of the class of 1986 given by Ms. Halpert that provoked a parental outcry and reduced many students to tears.

“I think you want the culture of your school to represent that ideal democratic world,” Ms. Roiphe said. “I think it’s important to carry those sort of lessons and models into the culture of the school.” From experience, she said, suppression is ultimately counterproductive, if the administration truly does not want the story out there. “You feed into adolescent rebellion,” she said. “You just feed into their response and their own dramatic vision of themselves as martyrs and heroines.”

In an editors’ note in the revised Daltonian signed by Sasha Dudding, Olivia Rosenthal and Kennett Werner, the paper’s editors in chief, the students acknowledge the error that got the plug pulled. They explain that the word “regularly” was not in the original question on the survey about drinking they distributed to students, though it was printed in the article. The changes were made “in order to reflect the question that was originally posed in the survey,” they wrote.

But there’s more: “After extensive consultation with the administration” the editors added what they termed a “clarification,” in the form of an additional chart. The added third chart shows alcohol consumption in all 409 responding students (26 percent of whom said they drank). It is now in addition to the existent pie chart breaking down the responses of only the 224 students who said they attended homecoming after-parties. (In that chart, 48 percent of that group said they drank.)

“Changing the shading on an article, taking a different perspective, is overstepping the bounds of a school administrator,” said Mr. LoMonte, though he pointed out that legally, many First Amendment protections do not extend to private-school publications the same way they might in the general arena, or at a public school. “If there are two ways to tell the story and either one of them is accurate, then the student editors ought to make that choice.”

Andrew Beaton, 18, a former sports editor of The Daltonian who is now a freshman at Duke University, was disturbed by the move. “In a school that preaches values of openness, what sort of message is it sending to the students?” he said. “I think that the message is that it sometimes is better to not poke around in the wrong places.”

“I am not sure what image they are trying to protect,” Ms. Roiphe said. “The truth being revealed in the Dalton newspaper,” she says, is “just the pretty average generic idea of high school life.”

Copyright 2010, The New York (N.Y.) Times. Reprinted with permission

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