Student journalists cry ‘censorship’ but might face discipline over a story

Harrisonville High School
Harrisonville High School The Kansas City Star

A group of student journalists could face disciplinary actions if they choose to publish an article in their school newspaper without their principal’s permission.

Members of the Harrisonville High School newspaper staff want to report on the recent resignation of the district’s superintendent, but they’ve been told they can’t without letting their principal look at their story first.

“I wouldn’t expel them but there would be consequences,” said Andy Campbell, Harrisonville High school principal. “The paper here at school is mine to control.”

Campbell is facing backlash from the students who write for and produce the Pride student newspaper and the HHS Wildcat News website.

According to the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., a student publication is a public forum for student expression when school officials have given student editors the authority to make their own content decisions.

A school can do that either through an official policy or by simply allowing a publication to operate with editorial independence, the press law center said.

“We’ve got a great set of editors and they generate their own story topics,” said Virginia DeVenney, the student newspaper’s adviser. “If necessary, I would, as the adviser, get involved.”

The school newspaper’s policy, which is noted on its website, is “to report news truthfully and accurately and to act as an open forum for student expression. Opinions in editorials do not reflect the views of the Harrisonville Cass R-IX school district, its staff or the adviser.”

However, the district’s school board policy says school-sponsored publications are part of the curriculum and are not a public forum for general student use. School authorities may edit or delete material which is inconsistent with the district’s legitimate educational concerns, the board policy says.

“As a former high school principal myself, I have had to monitor, approve, and disapprove publications,” superintendent Tim Ryan said. “This is common for principals and is one of the many responsibilities of a building administrator.”

Last week, DeVenney expressed to Campbell the desire of her students to report on the district superintendent’s recent resignation in a future edition.

Campbell responded by speaking to the students.

“I told them that if they put anything on the website, or in the paper, regarding this topic without it going across my desk first, they would face disciplinary consequences that would come from anytime a student does something outside of what they are allowed to do,” Campbell said. “Nothing that’s written at this point is going to change the past.”

Campbell said he was concerned that rumors would be the basis of the article. It is his belief is that there is little factual information students can report on.

“What I didn’t want to have happen is any of us to get into trouble for something that was written that was inaccurate or did not follow good journalism practices. There’s just no facts in the case,” Campbell said.

“It’s a pretty big topic around here and because of all that, I wanted to make sure that the kids weren’t doing things they shouldn’t do.”

Media law attorney Jean Maneke says student journalists don’t necessarily have the same rights as working professionals in the field.

“Unfortunately in Missouri, based on existing case law, high school newspapers do not have the same First Amendment rights that regular journalists and newspapers have,” she said. “Superintendents have a right to censor what high school students read.”

Meeting minutes from a closed board meeting where superintendent Bryan McDonald’s resignation was approved, along with McDonald’s separation agreement, are both open records at this time and can be used for reporting purposes by professional media, and students, should they choose.

Brently Probasco, managing editor of the student newspaper, is still concerned that the students’ constitutional rights as journalists are being threatened by the principal’s censorship.

She added that Campbell told students that if any stories did come across his desk, the students would have to remove anything he didn’t agree with in the articles.

“It’s one thing for him to read it, but it’s another thing for him to completely change what we’re trying to say,” Probasco said.

Students say they were told that if they don’t comply, Campbell would discipline them as a result of open defiance. The Student Press Law Center was contacted about the principal’s statements.

“Even in a student publication, a principal can’t legally substitute his personal preferences for those of the students,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. “The example I have used in the past is, I think everyone would agree that the principal couldn’t lawfully order the students, ‘Publish an endorsement of Jeb Bush because I personally support his candidacy.’ Since everyone accepts that to be true, then we know there are some lines a principal cannot cross and that his editorial control is not unlimited.”

Harrisonville student journalists said they have been able to operate with editorial independence up until the newspaper wanted to write a news article and an editorial piece about how the resignation and departures of superintendent McDonald and assistant superintendent Beth Mulvey affect students.

Mulvey announced her resignation last week.

“We want all sides of the story told,” Probasco said. “If we can back it up, it’s going in.”

Campbell says this is the second time in his six years as principal that he’s demanded prior review of a newspaper article before it has been published. He said it was on his own will that he’s made the request, and not one from his superiors.

“Because I don’t want them to get into trouble legally, I wanted the ability to review anything they were going to put in the paper,” Campbell said. “Our focus here is moving forward, and I think if we put anything in the paper at this point, (it) kicks up a hornet’s nest.”