Did BHS break the law by censoring student newspaper?

Published: Sep. 13, 2018 at 1:37 PM EDT
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Did a Burlington school break the law by censoring a student newspaper?

The student newspaper at Burlington High School, the BHS Register, broke a story Monday about school guidance director Mario Macias being charged with unprofessional conduct by the Agency of Education.

But Tuesday, school administrators censored the article, according to paper staff.

"The BHS Register is like very, very accessible to the students. So I think it, like, shouldn't be taken down. It makes sense that they would report it and the students would hear about it first," said McKenna Weston, a BHS student.

State law protects student journalists from school administration censorship, with some exceptions including libel or slander, an unwarranted invasion of privacy, a content that is obscene, profane, threatening or intimidating, harassment, hazing or bullying, violates federal or state law or creates the imminent danger of disrupting the ability of the school to perform its educational mission.

"Every time the school, like, messes up. They try to cover it up and they don't take responsibility for what they did," said Mils Trombley, a BHS student.

In a statement Thursday, the district says Principal Noel Green asked paper staff to remove the story finding that it meets an exception to the law by "substantially disrupting the ability of the school to perform its educational mission."

But the Vermont Press Association and the New England First Amendment Coalition says that reasoning doesn't apply to the law.

"That was for extreme cases like if that was a direct threat," said Mike Donoghue of the Vermont Press Association.

Donoghue says it seems school administrators broke the law.

"The fact that a story was reported saying our guidance director is facing state charges for six counts of misconduct-- that's just factual information," Donoghue said.

Now, the school has changed its decision, allowing the paper to post the story again. Students think it should have stayed up the whole time.

"I think it's a smart move. We should be aware of what's happening with our teachers. We should be aware of what's happening in the walls of our schools. We should keep it up. Even if it's shameful, that's what's happening," said Ebony Kilmer, a BHS student.

The Vermont Press Association and the New England First Amendment Coalition are asking northwestern Vermont school leaders to receive training on these types of issues and for administrators to apologize.

Thursday night, dozens filled the Burlington High School auditorium for the Burlington school board meeting, including paper staff.

"We understand that this order from Mr. Green is a violation of our rights,” said Julie Shannon-Grillo, an editor for BHS Register.

Shannon-Grillo read a written statement to the school board, saying the school’s statement regarding their story, “failed to show an understanding of our rights under Vt. law.”

“We do want them to recognize that there was error on their part and that there was a violation to a law,” said Halle Newman, and editor of the paper.