Student journalists from Overland High School’s decades-old student newspaper, The Scout, spoke out Thursday at the ACLU of Colorado, voicing complaints that the school principal has prematurely ended production of the paper for this year and fired their adviser in a student-administrator debate over “prior review” of newspaper content.
Retaliation against public school students for publishing lawful editorial content is specifically prohibited by Colorado law, and is also contrary to the First Amendment, Mark Silverstein, Legal Director of the ACLU of Colorado said during the press conference. “The Colorado Legislature has expressly declared in statue that students of the public schools shall have the right to exercise the right of freedom of speech and of the press.”
But student journalists Lori Schafer and Jaclyn Gutierrez, both editors at The Scout, told members of the media that there First Amendment rights had been abridged by the school principal.
The censorship started March 8, when students, complying with Principal Leon Lundie’s new “prior review” policy, showed Principal Lundie their news-page story about an Overland student who died after sustaining an injury at a wrestling meet. Principal Lundie said the student reporters had incorrectly listed the student’s cause of death.
On March 10, students brought Principal Lundie a copy of the death certificate, confirming that the cause of death was correctly stated in the original article. Principal Lundie then complained that the article lacked “balance.”
On March 11, Principal Lundie removed teacher Laura Sudik as newspaper adviser and informed students that, after this current issue had gone to press, the newspaper class would turn into a journalism class and stop publication.. Sudik had advised the newspaper for 14 years; in that time, no principal had imposed prior review until this year.
Last Friday, Principal Lundie told student editors that, after this issue, The Scout would not be allowed to publish another full issue. Seniors will be permitted to participate in a “senior issue” at the end of the year, which contains first-person anecdotes from graduating newspaper staff members, but no news.
There will be no newspaper in the future, Principal Lundie said Friday, because he does not like the “direction” in which the newspaper is going.
According to student editors Schafer and Gutierrez, the staff has tried to keep communication open with the administration, but repeated meetings with Principal Lundie have proven unproductive.
“The newspaper has been a part of the school for decades,” Schafer said. “Principal Lundie thinks he can just come and shut down the paper during his first year of oversight of the school because it does not help in his goal of creating the ‘perfect image.’”
Gutierrez said, “He refuses to compromise with us and refuses to accept the fact that the goal of a student publication is to report not only the good stories, but also the bad. We are not PR agents, we are reporters. Our job is to enlighten the student body and the community of the goings on inside of our school whether good or bad.”
In January, when the semester’s second issue was published, Principal Lundie imposed what he calls “seeing before we print,” a practice known everywhere else as prior review.
Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center – a nonprofit group near Washington D.C.,that provides legal help to student media – said the administration’s reasoning for shutting down the newspaper is not legal.
“Colorado law specifically prohibits censorship of student media except in the rarest of circumstances, “Goldstein said. “Showing your principal that he’s confused about how a student athlete died isn’t one of the things that justify censorship.”
Goldstein also cautioned that permitting students to run the article about the death of their classmate does not make cancelling future publications any less retaliatory or illegal.
“That’s like arguing that it’s not a civil rights violation for Gaddafi to put a protester in jail, provided he lets the protestor finish his march to the palace first,” Goldstein said. “You don’t measure it by when the axe falls, you measure it by the motivation for swinging the axe in the first place. I think the motivation is pretty transparent.”
Schafer and Gutierrez believe that this type of censorship is Principal Lundie’s attempt to protect the school’s image as well as his own.Schafer and Gutierrez are working with lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado and the Student Press Law Center to determine their next step and have been encouraged by other students and community members to find a way to keep publishing the newspaper.
“Everything we put into the newspaper has affected the reporter or students who attend Overland, and we all have the right to say how we feel. Not everyone needs to agree with it, but the fact that people have different views should be accepted and what they have to say should be respected. However, that is what Principal Lundie has just shut down,” Gutierrez said.
The students seek to have all of the unlawful consequences of Principal Lundie’s decisions reversed: the newspaper reinstated to regular publication with its adviser restored to her position, and an end to future censorship or mandatory prior review by administrators.
“Each story comes from the voice of a student: a voice needing to be heard. Principal Lundie had no right to do what he has done. He took away our freedom of speech and freedom of press and it is illegal. He needs to know that what he did and is doing is wrong. I’m going to do what I can and need to in order to stick up for the rights of my newspaper staff and get back what was taken from us,” Schafer said