The student newspaper at Faribault High School in Faribault, Minn. returned to the presses in February 2009 after a fight over prior review resulted in the school’s superintendent suspending publication and students turning to the local newspaper and the Internet as alternative means of publishing.
The Faribault Daily News reported that School District Superintendent Bob Stepaniak shut down the student paper, the Echo, on December 15, saying he and the paper’s student editors were “at loggerheads” over whether administrators at the public high school should be allowed to review the paper’s content prior to it going to print. At issue was a story about a middle school teacher who was the subject of an investigation over complaints that she had “inappropriate communication” with students, sending them text messages outside of school hours.
According to the Web site MinnPost.com, the students were investigating the story in fall 2008 when Stepaniak said he wanted to see any story about the teacher or the related investigation before it was published. The student journalists declined to allow Stepaniak prior review. Instead, they collaborated with the Faribault Daily News on a story about the teacher published December 10. Daily News reporter Jim Hammerand told MinnPost.com, “We said [to the students], ‘If you help us out, you might not be able to publish in the Echo, but we can publish in the Daily News.’ They were inside the school system, so they had information we couldn’t get. They knew the teacher’s name.” The byline for the December 10 Daily News story included Echo co-editors Benjamin Jackson and Christen Hildebrandt alongside Hammerand.
The Faribault Daily News reported December 15 that the students wanted to include a story similar to the one published December 10 in the Daily News in the forthcoming edition of the Echo. They offered to allow the school district’s attorney to review the story rather than school administrators, but Stepaniak declined the offer and shut the paper down the day before it went to press.
Jackson, Hildebrandt, and faculty adviser Kelly Zwagerman differed with Stepaniak over the central legal question of whether school administrators have the power under the First Amendment to review and restrain a newspaper published by the school district. The Daily News reported that Stepaniak pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988), which held that public school administrators can censor school-sponsored student speech, such as a student newspaper, when they can show a legitimate pedagogical purpose for doing so, and when it has not been established, by policy or practice, as a forum for student expression. In Hazelwood, a school principal had removed two stories from a student newspaper, one about student pregnancy and the other about students with divorced parents, because the principal believed they dealt with issues too mature for many in the high school reading audience and because he did not believe the stories met traditional journalistic standards of professional ethics.
The Echo’s student editors and their adviser, meanwhile, argued that they have a right to report on what Zwagerman called “public information about a public employee.” According to the Daily News, they cited the 2004 federal district court decision in Dean v. Utica Community Schools, 345 F. Supp. 2d 799 (E.D. Mich. 2004) in which the court declared the Utica, Mich. High School student newspaper to be a “limited purpose public forum,” meaning the school’s principal could regulate the newspaper based on the time, place, or manner of its publication and distribution, but not its content. The court ruled that the principal’s removal of a story about school bus fumes contributing to a Utica resident’s cancer was “unreasonable” and “unconstitutional.”
In a Dec. 11, 2008 letter to Stepaniak, Zwagerman pointed out that the Faribault school district’s policy on student publications states, “Official school media and activities are free from prior restraint by officials except as provided by law.” The policy’s guidelines generally follow the Hazelwood standard, however, stating that school-sponsored student media are subject to the editorial control of the School District “as long as the School District’s actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns,” including “assuring that media and activities are appropriate for the age level” and “assuring that the school is not associated with any position other than neutrality on matters of public controversy.” Officials may also make certain that school-sponsored student speech is not “inconsistent with the shared values of a civilized social order,” and is not “for example, ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased or prejudiced, vulgar or profane.” Stepaniak told MinnPost.com that he had never interfered with the Echo before, but was concerned that the story, if published, would damage the middle school teacher’s reputation, and might result in a lawsuit for the school district.
The Associated Press (AP) reported January 12 that the students turned to the Internet after being blocked from publishing the student newspaper. A company that creates Web sites for student publications, School Newspapers Online, offered the student editors of the Echo a free site after the print operation was shut down.
Hildebrandt told the AP that the Web site, Truth With Echo, available at http://www.truthwithecho.com/, would cover school news and events, but would not have any association with the district or use any school resources. Zwagerman told the AP her role in the Web site would be minimal, but that she would attend meetings, edit stories, or offer guidelines for ethics outside of class time.
According to the Faribault Daily News, Stepaniak said January 23 that he would allow the February issue of the Echo to be published, provided student editors agree to meet with him if they choose to publish a story about the investigation of the middle school teacher, and Zwagerman agree to contact district administrators about any potentially controversial stories in the future. Hildebrandt and Stepaniak said this arrangement reflects conditions that were in place prior to the shutdown.
The students also went before the district school board on January 26 to share their views on student free press rights and to discuss the current student publications policy. According to the Daily News, the students gave a PowerPoint presentation provided by the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) titled, “Press Freedom for High School Student Journalists,” which discusses the role of a free press in society, case law relevant to student journalists, the role of school officials as publishers, and their ability to control content. The board is considering changes to the district’s current media policy, the Daily News reported.
Myrtle Beach Principal Blocks Student Paper Distribution
Principal Ronnie Burgess of the public Academy for Arts, Science & Technology in Myrtle Beach, S.C. did not allow the Nov. 6, 2008 edition of the student newspaper, The Academy Post, to be distributed because he objected to an editorial and accompanying photograph.
The AP reported Dec. 18, 2008 that Burgess said the editorial, which advocated same-sex marriages, and the photograph, which featured two male students holding hands, would be disruptive.
Burgess said he consulted attorneys before preventing the quarterly newspaper from being distributed, and school district spokeswoman Teal Britton said district policy gives principals discretion over student publications, the AP reported.
The AP reported December 23 that The Academy Post’s student reporters had asked the school district to address the issue at its next meeting, but when the Bulletin went to press the issue had not been resolved.
Principal Cites FERPA, Hazelwood in Holding Up Article
A high school principal in Houston, Texas held back an individual article from a student newspaper there, citing federal law and his objections to its content.
Principal Claudio Garcia of Houston’s Cypress Ridge High School cited the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), 20 U.S.C. section 1232g, as well as the Hazelwood standard when he prevented a story from being published in the school newspaper, the Rampage, the SPLC reported on February 2.
FERPA is a federal law meant to protect the privacy of student education records. It prohibits school officials from disclosing student educational records unless they have obtained the permission of the student and parent if the student is under 18, and applies to all schools that receive funds from the U.S. Department of Education. Press advocacy groups have claimed that a recent change in the law will restrict journalists and other citizens from receiving information about violence in public schools. (See “FERPA Expanded, Critics Call New Rules ‘Irrational’” on page 14 of this issue of the Silha Bulletin.)
The SPLC reported Feb. 2, 2009 that student journalist Tara Cobler was investigating a story about a student who was removed from the school last November when Garcia refused to comment and, according to Cobler, “shut down the story.”
Cobler told the SPLC that Garcia said the story involved a privacy issue, but Cobler claimed that FERPA does not apply to student journalists who are not school officials, and said she had the student and his parents’ permission to report on the issue anyway.
SPLC legal consultant Mike Hiestand said, “In this case, Tara and the students on the newspaper staff are not school officials, or acting as agents of the school. FERPA does not prohibit them from talking to their classmates and reporting what they find out. Moreover, given that Tara had lengthy interviews with both the student and his mom, I think it’s a pretty easy call that they’ve consented to disclosing this information.”
The SPLC reported that Garcia also said that the Hazelwood decision supported his decision to prevent the story from being published. “Our campus newspaper is not an open forum for indiscriminate use by the general public or campus students and staff,” Garcia said. “Rather it is an educational course, over which school officials exercise reasonable editorial control to ensure that the pedagogical goals of the course are fulfilled.”
Cobler told the SPLC that she feels that “this is the definition of censorship,” and said she submitted her story to the Houston Chronicle in the hopes of getting it published.
– Patrick File
Silha Fellow and Bulletin Editor