School paper censorship may test 'New Voices' law
The editors of the Burlington High School newspaper, the BHS Register, say they have reached out to a legal nonprofit after being told to take down a story about a series of licensing charges against Mario Macias, the director of the school's guidance department.
The interaction may test the state's New Voices law, signed into law by Gov. Phil Scott in May 2017, which restricts prior restraint of high school publications and protects advisors and journalists from being disciplined over the publication of sensitive stories.
Student editors Julia Shannon-Grillo, Halle Newman, Nataleigh Noble and Jenna Peterson broke the story Monday night after receiving an anonymous tip (the reporting has since been confirmed by VTDigger and other media outlets).
The article was taken down Tuesday morning after the school's principal, Noel Green, ordered the Register's staff adviser, Beth Fialko-Casey, to have the students remove the story, according to the editors.
"We all feel a little frustrated because we know it's public information and we feel like it shouldn't be censored," Newman said.
Peterson said the editors decided to temporarily take down the story pending a meeting between Fialko-Casey and Green. In that meeting, the editors said, Green told Fialko-Casey that the story was creating a distraction and a hostile work environment for Macias.
The Register article quotes a report from an Agency of Education accusing Macias of creating a hostile and and offensive working environment himself. It also lists accusations by the Agency that he failed to maintain a professional relationship with a substitute teacher; deliberately falsified a student transcript; bullied employees and "was unaware of the basic functions of the guidance department."
The editors said they have reached out to the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit that provides legal information to student journalists, and are deciding what their next steps should be.
Green and Fialko-Casey did not respond to a request for comment. But Superintendent Yaw Obeng said in an emailed statement that Green had acted within his charge.
"Principals have the responsibility to manage the climate of the school and have the authority to regulate manners which they deem to be affecting that climate," Obeng said.
In 1988, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that school administrators could limit the first amendment rights of high school newspapers if the school has a legitimate pedagogical concern in regulating the speech.
But Vermont is one of more than a dozen states with the "New Voices" legislation meant to give student journalists protections not afforded to them under Hazelwood.
"Content shall not be suppressed solely because it involves political or controversial subject matter, or is critical of the school or its administration," Vermont's law states.
Mike Hiestand, a senior legal consultant for the Student Press Law Center, said the legality of the school's actions depends on what specifically the school asked the students to do.
"If this was a request, there isn't a violation, but if this was an order, it clearly was," he said.
Heistand added that students are often in the best position to break stories about their schools. "Assuming the facts are correct, this is the sort of story that the law was intended to protect," he said.
Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, introduced the legislation in Vermont and said that she believes the principal made the wrong decision in telling the Register to take the story down.
"I think that that flies in the face of the law," she said. "The students have the right to know that and the right to publish that."
White said student media outlets gives young journalists the chance to learn how to have civil discourse on important issues.
"Students don't give up their first amendment rights when they walk through the doors of the high school," she said.
The law does not protect stories that contain speech that is deemed libelous or slanderous, an invasion of privacy, obscene, bullying, or potentially violates federal or state law.
In 2017, the Register published an editorial arguing that Burlington High School had a problem with "oppressive" censorship of the student newspaper.
The editorial said the school's administration had ordered the student editors "countless times" to change headlines, remove published stories and not publish certain facts and images that painted the school in a negative light.
"The Burlington School District is a politically active community, a value that should be viewed as an asset in an educational environment," the Register wrote at the time. "Instead, this civic engagement has prompted worry from administration about the image of our school that the Register creates."
At the time, the BHS administration demanded that the editors send them all of their content 48 hours before publication for their approval. It is unclear if this remains the current policy.
Chris Evans, a lecturer and student media adviser at the University of Vermont who advocated for the New Voices legislation, said it strongly protects the students' right to publish what they see fit.
"Can the school ask them to take it down? I suppose they could express their displeasure and say that's not a good story to have up," he said, "but they can't order them to take it down unless they have evidence it is breaking the law in some way."
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