Censored in Springdale
Powers that be at Springdale’s Har-Ber High School found themselves in the middle of a major statewide flap last week after yanking an admirable news story and accompanying editorial by the HarBer Herald that alleged several football players had improperly transferred to Springdale High School.
Then they suspended the student-run publication, which reportedly hasn’t published since the disputed story ran on Oct. 30.
The administrators can’t fault anyone but themselves for national humiliation heaped upon them after initially ordering the story be pulled from the Herald because (ready for this?) they felt the story reflected poorly on them. What irony.
The big problem they had in taking such a rash step is the state law passed in 1995 which provided added protections to student newspapers.
Although Springdale District administrators said they were not involved in suspending the Herald’s publication, district Superintendent Jim Rollins wrote a letter to the paper’s adviser, Karla Sprague, reported by BuzzFeed News, which called the article “intentionally negative, demeaning, derogatory, hurtful and potentially harmful to the students addressed in those articles.”
Rollins went on to contend the story headlined “Athletes’ transfers in question/Former Wildcats use academics to justify hardship requests” also was “divisive and disruptive” to the school community.
What Rollins failed to dispute in his litany of disparagements was the factual accuracy of the Herald’s story, a critical aspect when it comes to enterprise reporting. And little did he realize it would be this unjustified and drastic decision that in fact heaped negative and disruptive attention on the school’s administration.
The school district and the Arkansas Activities Association both approved these transfers, most of which were requested based on a desire, the Herald reported, to be in a particular academic program at Springdale High not offered at Har-Ber.
That story also quoted two transfer students who implied football played a part in their decisions. One is quoted saying he could better showcase his talents at Springdale High.
District policy on such matters says “specific curriculum or instructional opportunities” are among acceptable reasons for students to seek transfer to another school within Springdale, but athletic or extracurricular opportunities are not listed.
The Associated Press reported the district instructed Sprague to remove the story from the Herald website, which it was. Har-Ber principal Paul Griep told Sprague nothing else could be published until new administrative guidelines for the Herald could be implemented. My translation: We need to review and possibly censor any story before publication.
BuzzFeed also reported that Sprague’s job was threatened. She wisely wasn’t commenting on any of this fine mess.
Meanwhile, this clear censorship of what I call a fine example of groundbreaking reporting as the First Amendment intended by any newspaper, as well as by BuzzFeed, unleashed a groundswell of support for the students and Sprague’s mentorship.
Reaction came from several directions, including the Student Press Law Center and the Arkansas Press Association.
I especially appreciated the comments of Justin Turner in a story from this newspaper’s Dave Perozek. Turner’s a Sheridan High School journalism teacher and director of the Arkansas Journalism Education Association, who said that the district was not following the law passed in 1995 if the published reports were accurate. It gave student journalists protection beyond the First Amendment, explaining that the law tells school boards to formulate a policy recognizing “that ‘students may exercise their right of expression’ in school-sponsored publications, regardless of whether those publications are supported financially by the school or by use of school facilities, or are produced by a class.”
The law cites specific reasons a school may censor a student publication. For example, if the material can be considered to be obscene to minors, is libelous or slanderous, is an unwarranted invasion of privacy, creates a “clear and present danger” of crimes on campus or disrupting the school’s operation.
“A story about a football team and players switching schools does not fit any of those categories,” Turner told Perozek. Besides, he said, schools should be teaching students to respect the First Amendment.
“And for a school to censor students for exercising those rights is not only illegal, but it goes against the mission of the school,” Turner said. “I know it’s incredibly tough as a teacher to teach kids about their rights and then be told by the district to go against what you’re teaching.”
In what I suppose could be construed as a happy ending to this Ozark disturbance that never should have formed into a hurricane, the district (after much justifiably negative feedback) allowed the stories in question to be reposted to the paper’s website.
“After continued consideration of the legal landscape, the Springdale School District has concluded that the Har-Ber Herald articles may be reposted,” the district’s communications director Rick Schaeffer wrote in a statement. “This matter is complex, challenging and has merited thorough review. The social and emotional well-being of all students has been and continues to be a priority of the district.”
That was all the district has to say about the matter, he concluded. I’ll just bet.
Left glaringly unaddressed was the matter of allowing the Herald to resume publishing as usual because administrators reportedly were still considering other matters related to the paper other than this story, whatever that means.
Sounds to me as if someone or ones in administration are working overtime to determine some way to control these unruly, upstart, loose-cannon, idealistic student journalists and their competent adviser who dare to accurately, fairly and objectively report news even when it is critical or embarrassing toward them.
Gawd knows, our national “professional” press at its uppermost levels could use a lot of that today.
Believe I’ll just nominate this story for national recognition among the high school ranks. Betcha a dollar it wins.