Friday, March 16, 2018

Dr. Paul J. Padalino, Superintendent
Kingston City School District
61 Crown Street
Kingston, New York 12401

Dear Dr. Padalino:

You were out of district when I made my first visit to the Kingston High School campus, on Weds., March 14, 2018. I arrived on campus at about 9:30 am, a few minutes after learning from one of my editors that students would commemorate the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shootings in an indoor event rather than outdoor, as was customary throughout much of the United States.

Arriving at the campus, I was told by security that I could not enter the building without authorization from Crown Street. However, one of your security personnel said that if I "hustled," I could call the office and get authorization in time to attend. If I did not leave, however, I was told I would be arrested.

I complied with that instruction on both counts. I stepped off campus and contacted Mr. John Voerg, your deputy, and told him of some of my press affiliations, and was cheerfully told he would contact the campus and clear me for entry. This clearance was broadcast on the campus security radio system, and I was allowed past the barricade.

When I entered the building, however, I was blocked, this time by an assistant principal, who said I had no proof that I had secured the permission of Mr. Voerg, despite this authorization having been broadcast through the security network by radio. I was threatened with arrest at least two more times.

Once again I left the premises. On the way out of the parking lot, the same security official I initially encountered came up to my car and apologized for the error, saying I was really allowed in. So, I parked and re-entered the building, and this time was permitted to proceed past the assistant principal and a host of police officers, and walked in the direction I was told to go (to the left). I joined some students who were holding silent vigil.

About three minutes later, Kate Heidecker, the school's public relations specialist, approached me and instructed me to come with her. She, too, claimed I did not have permission to be in the building.

"I got permission 20 minutes ago," I said.

"For an event of this nature, you cannot ask 20 minutes in advance," she replied, claiming that I needed permission two weeks in advance. I was taken back to the lobby and ordered to leave, again on threat of arrest, in the presence of several police officers. I complied.

However, soon after arriving in my office, I learned from Dan Barton, editor of Kingston Times, that he had been invited to send a reporter just two days prior. Ms. Heidecker openly lied to me, in front of other school officials, to justify my removal from the building -- while other reporters with affiliations and credentials similar to my own were permitted to stay.

It is at this point that the district encounters a potential legal problem. The district operates a public facility. There are certain regulations that visitors must follow, and I followed them to the letter. And being a public facility presents the district with certain obligations under the law.

Having obtained permission to enter, for the same purpose as the other reporters, and having given the administration no reason to remove me (such as improper comportment, or lack of press credentials), I am entitled to stay for the purpose agreed -- a brief, important, one-time event that cannot be recreated.

This is a basic 14th Amendment matter known as equal protection under the law: that individuals similarly situated are entitled to the same rights, on public property. This is also a 1st Amendment issue, in that my removal can be presumed to have the intention of interfering with my ability to cover the event in question -- an event which itself qualifies as protected speech.

I am familiar with these matters because I have successfully litigated, in federal court, a nearly identical situation with the State University of New York at New Paltz, in the case Coppolino v. Eaton and Chandler (Northern District of NY, 1993).

In that case, just as this, administration officials removed me from campus on threat of arrest, lied about why they did it, and did not reverse their decision until it became apparent that the damages were accruing by the day. I was then paid a substantial settlement and issued an apology, and received coverage in The New York Times and throughout the Hudson Valley media.

Perhaps you would have made a different decision had you been in-district on that day. Perhaps you would have denied me permission to be there, or granted me permission to stay despite not having the requisite two-day or two-week or 22-minute margin of consent.

However, it is a fact that I was granted entry on legitimate grounds, and subsequently removed from district premises without reasonable grounds, when other reporters, present there for the same reason, were permitted to remain.

It's clear from Ms. Heidecker's March 12 email invitation to Dan Barton at Kingston Times that she was only interested in having "some select media" in attendance, to use her words.

This is a dangerous position to take. The conduct of district and high school officials on March 14 exposed the district to the prospect of costly litigation, which would draw attention to such a ridiculous policy. Additionally, this raises the question of what "un-select" -- that is, non-hand-picked -- media might report.

On Wednesday, I had the option to get arrested, specifically to immediately bring this matter to public attention. That would have worked in favor of students, since I would have spun that into national publicity for the issue at hand.

It was needlessly confrontational to threaten me with arrest no fewer than five times in half an hour, when I was conducting myself professionally.

It is not good policy to threaten reporters with arrest. It is not good policy to lie to their face. It is not good policy to attempt to micro-manage media coverage when none of us were there for any reason other than to report what students were doing, which was claiming their right not to be shot in school, and to petition the government for the redress of their grievances.

In fact, if as Kirk Reinhardt said in his letter to parents, the experience was designed to "empower" students, I cannot imagine something more dispiriting than forcibly ejecting a reporter who was there to write about their peaceful protest. And this was not on some small matter like the quality of the French fries in the cafeteria. People are shooting at students, sanctioned by official federal policy. Indeed, the purpose of holding the protest indoors, as it was explained to me, was to protect them from getting shot at. That must be utterly terrifying.

The students I saw in the corridor of Kingston High School were literally grieving, confined to a corridor, while an estimated one million students participated in an actual walkout. Further, I have learned that all who did leave the building after I was forced off campus were punished with in-school suspensions.

In light of all this, I would ask you what you think fair settlement of this matter is. I am an open-minded person. I came to your facility in peace, for a respectful purpose, and expect no less from you. I propose we resolve the matter in this same spirit, and the spirit of education.

I propose a school-wide assembly (with all the press invited), where we would discuss the incident, and explain to students what happened, and apologize to them for ejecting me from campus. Admit that administrators made a mistake -- one that could easily land the school district in federal court. Then, we would proceed to a discussion of 1st Amendment rights of students. I reckon that one of the civil rights attorneys who could represent me in this case might come to the high school and facilitate such a discussion. The issues could also be researched by students, for extra credit or as an extracurricular activity.

One last point.

If the purpose of removing me from the building, and the whole show of force associated with that, was to somehow protect students, your security team failed in that I was never searched, patted down or wanded on the way into the building. I was wearing my Ulster County press identification, but nobody actually checked to see if it was current or valid.

This demonstrates that the purpose of the exercise of holding the protest indoors, and subsequently, removing me, was to protect students from ideas, and not from physical injury.

Very truly yours,

P.O. Box 3606
Kingston, NY 12401
H. (845) 331-0355 OR W. (845) 481-5616 or

CC: Nora Scherer, president, Kingston School Board
  James Shaughnessy, member of the Kingston School Board
  Stephen Bergstein, Esq.
  Michael H. Sussman, Esq.