Editorial: Young journalists – again – school the adults

Editor’s note: The following is an editorial published by the Valley News newspaper in West Lebanon, N.H., on Dec. 7.

It is profoundly discouraging to witness adults failing in their obligations to the young people in their charge. Examples abound, from the thoughtless to the tawdry to the traumatic, and in each case they represent a betrayal. But what a glorious thing it is when young people, with right on their side, stand their ground and teach the adults a thing or two.

A few months ago, we learned of four student journalists at Burlington High School who broke the news about a school employee who was facing a state investigation on charges of unprofessional conduct.

As VtDigger reported in September, the school’s principal ordered the story removed from the website of the BHS Register, the student newspaper, which was an apparent violation of Vermont’s “New Voices” law. That law, signed by Gov. Phil Scott in 2017, was designed specifically to protect student journalists. Burlington School District officials began backtracking almost immediately. The students’ journalism was sound, the adults’ interpretation of the law was flawed, and the end result was the scrapping of “all previously practiced or adopted guidelines” regarding student publications and a revamping of the school’s media policy – in a process that this time included students.

“I think … we’ve just learned how important and how vital the First Amendment is to just our country, and our society and our government,” senior Nataleigh Noble, 17, one of the student journalists who wrote the story, told The Associated Press.

In October, a similar situation unfolded about 1,500 miles to the south and west, in Springdale, Ark., where student journalists at Har-Ber High School, after a nearly yearlong investigation, uncovered a scandal that involved one of the South’s sacred cows – the varsity football team.

Six players, the Har-Ber Herald reported, were allowed to transfer to Springdale High School, which is in the same school district as Har-Ber High. Such transfers are permitted for academic reasons only, and that is what the parents of the players said in their letters requesting the transfers. The student journalists obtained those letters through a freedom-of-information request – and they also interviewed several of the players, who told them that the real reason they wanted to transfer to Springdale was to increase their chances of being offered a major college football scholarship. Transfers for that reason are not allowed under the school district’s policy, and that was the focus of the Har-Ber Herald report.

We would like to be able to say that Springdale School District officials applauded the students’ diligence and enterprise and immediately began a review of the district’s policies on transfers. We cannot. Instead, they suspended publication of the newspaper, ordered the story and accompanying editorial removed from its website, demanded that all future stories be reviewed in advance by administrators and threatened to fire the teacher who advises the student journalists.

It’s almost like they had something to hide – something, that is, beyond their ignorance of the 1995 Arkansas Student Publication Act, which, like Vermont’s “New Voices” law, is intended to protect the First Amendment rights of student journalists.

“If something is in the wrong, then I think people need to know about it,” Halle Roberts, 17, the Herald’s editor-in-chief, told a local TV station. “And as journalists, I feel that it is our duty to do that. And I don’t think we were in the wrong for that,” she said.

Recently, after the Student Press Law Center published the censored story on its website and the faculty of the University of Arkansas School of Journalism and Strategic Media and members of the Northwest Arkansas chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists weighed in with harsh critiques of the administration’s actions, Springdale School District officials relented and allowed the articles to be reposted. In a statement, they called the matter “complex” and “challenging” and said it merited a “thorough” review.

“This statement may or may not answer all of your questions but this is all we have to say,” they concluded. “The district will not make anyone available for interviews.”

Not exactly a profile in courage. Further, such petulant stonewalling sets a terrible example for the unfortunate students whose schools these officials purport to lead.

We applaud the courageous student journalists at the Har-Ber Herald, the BHS Register and elsewhere and urge them to continue to investigate their school districts’ policies and how they are being implemented. Perhaps their efforts will help teach district officials a little something about the importance of the First Amendment, the evils of censorship and the folly of trying to bury the truth.


New student media policy aligns with free speech

Photo courtesy the BHS Register
BHS Register editors were honored last week by the Vermont Press Association with its very first New Voices award. Left to right: Jenna Peterson, Nataleigh Noble, VPA executive director Mike Donoghue, Julia Shannon-Grillo, Halle Newman and newspaper advisor Beth Fialko-Casey.

By AIDAN QUIGLEY
VTDIGGER.ORG

The Burlington School District unanimously adopted a new student media policy last week that is in line with a state law protecting the First Amendment rights of student journalists.

The policy follows a censorship controversy at Burlington High School after the school’s student-run newspaper, the BHS Register, broke news of Agency of Education charges against guidance director Mario Macias in September.

Principal Noel Green told newspaper adviser Beth Fialko-Casey to have the student editors who wrote the story — Julia Shannon-Grillo, Halle Newman, Nataleigh Noble and Jenna Peterson — remove it from the newspaper’s website. The school later allowed the story to be published, but then temporarily re-instated a prior review policy that was against state law.

The New Voices law, signed by Gov. Phil Scott in May 2017, restricts school administrations from dictating what student-run newspapers can publish and protects student journalists and their advisers from discipline for the publication of sensitive stories.

The policy approved by the Burlington School Board lays out the same six conditions in the law under which school administration can restrict publication.

Publication of information can be restricted if it is libelous or slanderous; is an unwarranted invasion of privacy; may be defined as gratuitously profane, threatening or intimidating; may be defined as bullying or harassment under state law; violates federal or state law; or creates imminent danger of materially or substantially disrupting the ability of the school to perform its educational mission.

Jeff Wick, the school board’s vice chair, said the new policy follows the spirit and letter of the New Voices law.

“The New Voices law was intended to provide clarity and First Amendment rights to student journalists,” he said. “Obviously we have to follow it, and personally I think it empowers journalists and carries out the First Amendment.”

Wick chaired the committee that drafted the policy. Other members were Green; Fialko-Casey; Traci Griffith, a journalism professor at St. Michael’s College; Mike Donoghue, the executive director of the Vermont Press Association; and the BHS Register editors.

The policy states that the district believes freedom of expression is a fundamental principle for a democratic society.

“It is the policy of this District to ensure all students in all grades enjoy free speech and free press protections related to school-sponsored media, and to encourage students to become educated, informed, and responsible members of society,” the policy states.

The policy, like the law, states that there will be no prior review by the district or school administrators of content in student-run media outlets and students and their advisers will not be disciplined for publishing content that is protected by the law.

“Content in school-sponsored media will not be restrained solely because it involves political or controversial subject matter or is critical of the school or its administration,” the policy states.

In creating the new policy, the committee considered the New Voices law, a model policy from the Vermont School Boards Association and a policy adopted in South Burlington, Donoghue said. Burlington’s new policy has support from the state press association and the New England First Amendment Coalition.

Donoghue said the BHS student editors played a key role in drafting the policy, and he praised their work with the Macias story.

“I give them top marks for what they’ve done and the professionalism of these amateur journalists in training,” he said. “They were arm-and-arm with professional journalists doing their job and scooped a bunch of media outlets with this story.”

Champlain Valley Union High School does have a student publication policy in place that addresses the possibility that students may cover controversial topics.

“It is the policy of the Champlain Valley School District to support and encourage student publications as part of the school curriculum while exercising its responsibility to reasonably regulate content and style,” the policy reads. “Official school publications may include topics about which there may be dissent and controversy. School sponsored activities must teach the important of balance, fairness and accuracy, and produce and distribute student materials which are suited to maturity of students as a whole.”

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