Proposed restrictions stem from politics

KANSAS — The inspiration for Senate bill no. 669 limiting the student press may have come from sour local politics. According to Gene Anderson, the attorney for one student who testified against the bill, the legislation has its roots in Great Bend’s school board.The situation began when student journalist Alexis Vanasse ran an opinion piece about Great Bend High School’s uneven disciplinary practices that gave preferential treatment to rule-breaking children from prominent local families. Vanasse1s article commented that the son of a school board member received a slap on the wrist for an alleged sexual harassment against another student; another student who brought a waterballoon to school was suspended for three days.In response to the article, principal Mike Hester pulled the editorial pages from subsequent issues of the school newspaper, Panther Tales.Vanasse threatened to bring a suit against the principal, and he eventually agreed to replace the school1s existing student press guidelines with a paraphrased version of the student publications act. However, Anderson contends that Hester is in violation of the law for censoring another story by Vanasse, one about the administration1s failure to properly report the sexual harassment incident.The student accused of sexual harassment is the son of a school board member, and the state senator who proposed the bill limiting the student press, Laurie Bleeker, was a member of the school board when Hester pulled the editorial pages from Great Bend High School1s student paper.”This bill is a blatant attempt to gut the [state law],” Anderson said. “They’re trying to take good legislation and modify it because they got burned trying to censor student publications.”When pulling the article, Hester claimed that it was not newsworthy. However, Anderson argues that decisions concerning newsworthiness should be made by the student editors, not administrators. “We question that they can spike a story on the grounds that it1s not newsworthy.”However, Panther Tales’ adviser Marla Stark has a different perspective. According to Stark, the story “really had no newsworthiness at all” and instead told one side without quotes from credible sources. Stark said that Hester did not pull the story and that student editors did not want to print it.”Principal Hester has not even come into the journalism room to review the paper once since the opinions page was reinstated,” Stark stated.Anderson said Vanasse is considering a lawsuit against the principal, and that they intend to ask the court to order the latest censored article to be printed before the school year ends.Meanwhile, Vanasse said that she and other Panther Tales’ staff members have drawn up their own guidelines — without influence from the principal — which will be in place this fall.Yet Vanasse looked at the bright side, saying the situation has given the staff an opportunity to learn about student press law. Vanasse observed, “Now we’re not just blindly following our school’s leader.”Stark concurred, expressing her opinion that the student editors “have a lot of ownership of this paper because of the controversy that has surrounded them this year.”