Principal agrees to news changes

KANSAS — A student journalists’ plan to sue her principal may prompt the school board to conform to the state student free press law.Alexis Vanesse planned to file suit in federal district court arguing that officials at Great Bend High School violated her rights to free expression by imposing “illegal” guidelines for the student newspaper, Panther Tales.But in on Nov. 10, Vanesse’s attorney, Gene Anderson, began negotiations with the school board while they deliberate over new student publications guidelines that paraphrase the Kansas Student Expression Act.”The critical question now is whether they will accept these guidelines or continue with the current Panther Tales guidelines currently in effect that are completely unacceptable,” said Anderson.The conflict arose this summer when principal Mike Hester instructed Panther Tales to stop printing an opinion page because of writing he considered “yellow journalism.”One of the stories in question was Vanesse’s editorial in the spring of 1997, “All Hail the Good ‘ol Boy System,” which criticized the administration’s discipline policy, suggesting preferential treatment for rule-breaking students from respected families.Hester disputed the facts in Vanesse’s story and called her writing “malicious, slanderous, and libelous” in The Hutchinson News, a local paper.Students protested the censorship of Panther Tales’ opinion page by collecting 500 signatures from students, teachers and parents.Following a Hutchinson News story about the conflict, the American Civil Liberties Union offered to help the students.Hester allowed the opinion page to run in September, but issued new guidelines for student editorials. According to Hester’s guidelines, stories must show “restraint” and students could not write about topics that could be “misconstrued.”Hester’s guidelines state that any conflicts regarding Panther Tales’ articles will be resolved by “a panel comprised of community members, GBHS faculty and students.”Under these guidelines, this panel, not Panther Tales editors, had final authority over the content of the paper.Panther Tales adviser Marla Stark encouraged students to accept the guidelines said Vanesse, but the students refused, claiming they were “ridiculous and illegal.””[The adviser] didn’t want us to cause any more trouble. She was just trying to keep her job,” said Vanesse.Anderson sent Hester a cease and desist letter instructing the administration to comply with the Student Publications Act.The law, which was enacted by the state legislature in 1992, is meant to protect press freedoms of high school students that were limited by the 1988 Supreme Court’s decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier.The law reads, “School employees may regulate the number, length, frequency, distribution and format of student publications. Material shall not be suppressed solely because it contains controversial or political subject matter.”Hester claimed this law justified his censorship of the editorial page because it was a “format” change.Hester’s idea that the law allows him to change the format of Panther Tales was “bizarre” says John Hudnell, executive director of the Kansas Scholastic Press Association. After deciding to take legal action, Vanesse lost support from her adviser.”A lot of people think I’m overreacting, but I’m really disappointed in my adviser and principal,” said Vanesse.Vanesse hopes to avoid a lawsuit, but she and Anderson will file suit if the school board does not accept the new guidelines.Anderson would not speculate as to when a decision would be made.Great Bend officials did not respond to phone calls for comment.