Vermont High School Journalists Stand Up to Censorship and Win
Armed with a new Vermont law that protects student journalists, four high school editors have stood up to censorship and won, prompting their school to revamp its media policy.
The Burlington High School students had posted a story on the school newspaper website that they collectively wrote on a school employee facing unprofessional conduct charges from the state. They had gotten a tip about the investigation and filed a public records request, posting the story the night of Sept. 10.
The next morning, the principal asked the students' adviser to take it down. The students quickly consulted with legal experts about what do to and wrote on the website that their article had been censored.
Days later, the principal said the students could repost the story since it had been picked up by local media. Then, Sept. 15, the school did another about-face and said it would change its policy on media, based on the New Voices law.
"I think I've learned more in the past week than I have in my entire life. It's been really incredible," senior Halle Newman, 17, said.
The big lesson is she's learned to stand up for herself and what she believes in and for their rights as a student press, she said. They've also witnessed how important journalism is to a community, she said, from the community reaction and support.
"I think on a larger scale we've just learned how important and how vital the first amendment is to just our country, and our society and our government," said senior Nataleigh Noble, 17.
Burlington High School Principal Noel Green didn't return a phone call seeking comment. The school district announced Sept. 15 that "all previously practiced or adopted guidelines regarding publications in the BHS Register are no longer in effect." The school board, and the administration, will develop a written policy consistent with the new law, in a process involving the students, the district said.
"The New Voices law is intended to ensure free speech and free press protections for public school students in order to encourage students to become educated, informed, and responsible members of society," the district said. Thirteen states have passed similar legislation.
"The importance of this case was that it really did provide a good solid example that these laws really are important and do work," said Mike Hiestand, legal consultant for the Washington-based Student Press Law Center, where about 40 percent of the incoming calls are about censorship.
Now at least two of the Vermont students see journalism in their futures.
"We've gotten like such a rush from putting out this important information and helping out community," said Noble. Newman said she'd always wanted to pursue journalism but the experience confirmed it.
"It was obviously overwhelming and hectic but it was also exciting and something I can see myself doing again," she said.