At a Denver-area high school, editors of the student newspaper are learning a difficult lesson: embarrassing a school, even unintentionally, is a risky prospect when administrators control their ability to publish. Never mind the First Amendment, Colorado state law, or school district policy.
This affair began on a sad note, when a sophomore at Overland High School died from complications several weeks after being injured during a wrestling match at the school. The staff at the student newspaper, the Overland Scout, drafted an article largely composed of what you would normally expect from a sad story: remembrances of the departed student by his peers and members of the faculty.
The school had apparently recently implemented a policy of prior review after an editor wrote a “graphic” piece about how she coped with her brother’s suicide. Thus, the editors submitted their article to the principal, who, according to the students, said that the article incorrectly stated the cause of death. When the students retrieved a copy of the death certificate (showing that, indeed, the student died for the reasons the article stated), the principal apparently shifted his criticism to this statement from the article:
“[Phillips' mother] was not called and notified about his injury after it happened and found out from a student who saw her when she came to pick him up after.”
The school district — likely conscious of the potential of litigation — says that the student left without telling anyone of his injury after being placed on ice in the locker room, so the principal’s concerns were that the article was inaccurate. It’s unclear whether the school is denying that the student’s mother wasn’t called, but this report suggests that the school blames the student for the lack of a phone call. Even if the facts were inaccurate, they probably aren’t libelous, which is one of few times when Colorado law authorizes school administrators to exercise prior restraint. School district policy notes that “[w]hile educators must encourage accurate, responsible journalism, such responsibility cannot be employed as a guise to censor student expression”
But it would be difficult for anyone to read an article mourning the loss of a fellow student and then appear to shift any level of blame to the deceased. Instead, students say, the school gave the newspaper’s advisor her walking papers and ended physical publication of future issues.
The school district, of course, says that this is nothing more than your regularly-scheduled budgetary complication and that, far from censorship, this is simply a shift in the educational focus of the journalism class. Rather than focus on dead-tree newspapers — a dying industry — the school is following the lead of nearby University of Colorado and shifting their attention to online media. Furthermore, the advisor will continue her role through the end of the school year — and the disputed article is available online.
But let’s be skeptical. The article isn’t online because the Overland Scout published it on their website: it’s online because the Student Press Law Center and Denver Post, among others, posted it. The Overland Scout doesn’t appear to have a website at all.
What should raise red flags here is the timing. Student Press Law Center attorney Adam Goldstein put it best:
“On Tuesday the students are told they have a fact wrong, on Thursday they prove that they have that fact right, and on Friday the journalism teacher is fired and the newspaper is canceled for the rest of the year,” he said. “That doesn’t sound to me like a well thought-out, reasoned change in the course of the program.”
The paper’s editors say that the principal told them the article could not be published — and it’s unclear whether it will ever be published, or whether the newspaper will be allowed to publish anything other than a traditional end-of-the-year farewell to graduating seniors. But censorship is rarely as cut-and-dry as telling a newspaper what they can’t say or threatening sanctions if prohibited words are printed. Modern censorship arrives in a baby basket of bureaucratic maneuvering, sudden devotion to inflexible red tape, and strong hints from those who control the purse strings about what is ‘appropriate.’
Announcing, abruptly, an end to a newspaper’s physical publication, shifting articles to a non-existent website (which students are even less likely to read), and terminating the newspaper’s advisor the same week as telling editors an article was too ‘inaccurate’ to publish is insensitive timing at best.