Department of Education requires prior review

ARKANSAS — The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is trying to inflict a prior review policy on a high school student newspaper in Arkansas.The proposed review policy stems from a article appearing in the December 1996 issue of Booneville High School’s student newspaper, the Bearcat Eyes, with the sub-title “Student Council sponsors slave auction for Goodfellows.”The article provided a factual report about the school’s annual charity auction. Students are auctioned off to the highest bidder to be their “maid or butler” for one day. The proceeds are donated to charity. Until two years ago, the event was called the “slave auction.”The word “slave” used in the headline was found offensive by one reader, who then filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education. Only one complaint regarding the article was filed.The civil rights office responded in September to the complaint by offering the Booneville Superintendent a potential settlement agreement to resolve the problem. The third provision, and the one that most concerned the school’s administration, states the superintendent will establish a formal policy requiring a school-designated sponsor to review all information for all school-sponsored publications prior to publication.It also says the school publications policy should be revised to include “material cannot discriminate on the basis of race or sex” under prohibited material.School administrators said they think the proposed agreement suggests the accurate report on the charity event could have been prohibited under this provision of the agreement.Paul Bloom, attorney for Booneville School Board, said the proposal from the civil rights office prohibiting the publication of potentially discriminatory material is “overkill, unconstitutional and arrogant.”It is a violation of the First Amendment to prohibit [discriminatory material] from being published,” Bloom said.Bloom said he was surprised the Office of Civil Rights added that provision to the settlement agreement.”Frankly, I’m shocked the Office of Civil Rights would have someone on staff who would propose that,” he said. “I thought everyone knew prior restraint is not acceptable.”Aaron Hosman, superintendent for Booneville Public Schools, said he is not required to sign the agreement. It is a voluntary settlement. However, if he does not sign, the Office for Civil Rights could pursue the complaint further. If the Superintendent still chooses not to comply, the school district may then be taken to court.This proposed agreement possibly conflicts with the Arkansas Student Publication Act of 1995, which states, among other things, “Student publications policies shall recognize that students may exercise their right of expression….This right includes expression in school sponsored publications….”Lana Hampton, publications adviser for Booneville High School, said a prior review policy and the recommended publications policy revision would “shut down” the learning process for students.”We are trying as educators to teach students how to think, not what to think,” she said. “If we say ‘you can1t go down that road cause because you may find truth,’ then they will learn not to go down it.”Regarding the proposed publications policy revision that states discriminatory material is prohibited, Hampton said that is an impossibility.”I don’t know if my students or even myself would be able to recognize discrimination under every guise,” Hampton said.She said she thinks asking someone to review a newspaper for discriminatory material is like asking someone to be the “thought police.”The Department of Education refused to comment on the issue.