A tense stand-off occurred Tuesday between Palo Alto High School's journalism students and PTSA President Preeva Tramiel when Tramiel threatened to cut funding to student publications if the journalists didn't change their editorial content.
Tramiel called a meeting with the student-run newspaper The Campanile because she was angry about how students responded to a January act of vandalism in the school library, she said after the meeting.
Student journalists knew the perpetrator's identity but neither turned him in to administrators nor wrote an editorial condemning the act, she said.
She told students Tuesday she was "the one who signs the checks" and wanted them to be more responsible to the school community, according to junior Peter Johnson, a co-editor in chief of the school's Viking sports magazine and meeting attendee.
Tramiel later back-tracked on the threat when she realized she had no authority from the entire PTSA to pull funding, she said.
The $10,000 the PTSA gives annually for printing and mailing is in no danger, she said.
The meeting came just days after students won 17 journalism awards at the National Scholastic Press Association convention in Anaheim, including a Best of Show award for the Viking. The Campanile was also recognized as one of the best papers in its class.
Students from all of the school's publications came to the Tuesday meeting to show the journalism program's unity after Campanile editors were contacted by Tramiel, Co-editor in Chief Tyler Blake said.
Also present were the publications' teacher advisors, Ellen Austin, Mike McNulty, Paul Kandell and Esther Wojcicki, as well as English instructional-supervisor Trinity Klein, next year's PTSA president Suzanne Attenborough and Principal Jacquie McEvoy.
McEvoy spoke about the importance of student journalism in helping different stakeholders at school communicate, Blake said.
She seemed to have a different goal for the meeting than Tramiel and did not speak in support of Tramiel's comments, he said.
McEvoy refused to comment for this article.
Students were shocked that the PTSA president would use her power to intimidate them with a personal opinion, Johnson said, adding "the majority" of Palo Alto parents would probably disagree with Tramiel.
Some e-mailed Tramiel in concern after the meeting, including Elisabeth Rubinfien, a former editor at the San Jose Mercury News and mother of Noah Sneider, Johnson's co-editor at the Viking.
Rubinfien said she wrote to Tramiel that "it is inappropriate for community leaders to try to threaten editors or reporters."
In response to an e-mail from Johnson's mother, Terri Lobdell, Tramiel tied students' responsibility as journalists to funding.
"It is time these kids were held accountable. If a reporter ticked off an employee of a big advertiser at a real newspaper they would be fired," Tramiel's e-mail states.
In an interview with the Weekly Wednesday, Tramiel said she had changed her mind about the students' responsibility to the PTSA as their financial backer but insisted they had a community responsibility to condemn the vandalism and turn in the culprit.
Responding to Tramiel's assertion students should have turned in the vandal -- who removed space-bar keys from library computers and littered the room with thousands of print-outs of Chairman Mao in January -- Blake said such an action would violate journalistic integrity.
"When a source comes to us in anonymity, they expect that we will keep them anonymous and if we don't that's ... kind of lying to the people who have trusted us. And secondly, it means in the future anonymous sources will be less likely to talk to us," he said.
Viking editors Johnson and Sneider won the Student Journalist Impact Award at last week's awards ceremony for a story about hazing in Paly athletics that relied heavily on anonymous sources.
The story was praised by McEvoy, the school board and others for uncovering a dangerous, secretive tradition that they said needed to be stopped.
Tramiel said students kept the vandal's identity secret to look cool.
"They wanted to be cool journalists more than they wanted to be responsible citizens, and I wanted to remind them of that responsibility," she said of her threat to cut funding.
The lack of an editorial showed student apathy towards a costly and damaging pattern of vandalism, she said. And the paper's coverage encouraged later incidents of vandalism of library keyboards, she said.
"If that prank hadn't made the front page of The Campy, would there have been the follow-up vandalism?" she asked, using the paper's nickname.
Yet Blake said it was a foregone conclusion students thought vandalism was stupid and that the editorial space is usually reserved for comment on issues being debated in which the student opinion can have an impact.
"There are better ways to use editorial space than to say something that seemingly everyone is agreeing with," he said, noting he spoke for himself, not the whole editorial board.
As well, the vandalism occurred right before the paper went to press, leaving no time for an editorial, he said.
In the intervening month before the following issue's editorial, more pressing news arose, he said.