Cen­sored in Spring­dale

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - Mike Master­son Mike Master­son is a long­time Arkansas jour­nal­ist. Email him at mmas­ter­[email protected]­line.com.

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.

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