Missouri High School Students Sue School for Firing Their Newspaper Adviser

Staff members of a Missouri high school newspaper filed a First Amendment suit against their school in October after school officials fired their newspaper adviser.

Students at Blue Springs South High School in Blue Springs, Mo., claim that their former adviser, Valerie Halas, was removed from her position after she refused to censor stories to which school officials had objected. The students claim that since Halas’ removal they have not been permitted to make content decisions regarding the newspaper.

The school received national attention two years ago when school officials prohibited the student newspaper, the Jaguar Journal, from publishing an article that described how local grocery stores sold cigarettes to minors in violation of state law. The editor of the paper at the time claimed that school officials objected to the article after the stores, who were financial contributors to the school system, complained to them that the story would hurt their businesses.

After a local paper ran the story, the principal allowed the students to publish their article.

The Jaguar Journal received the Student Press Law Center’s 1996 Scholastic Press Freedom Award for its actions.

The students claim that following the 1996 incident, school officials began to complain heavily to Halas about the content of the Jaguar Journal, telling her that the paper should have a more “positive slant,” a demand that Halas refused. Halas was removed from her faculty adviser position and as a journalism teacher in June.

This will be an interesting and important case to watch. Increasingly, we have seen schools — both at the high school and college level — target student media advisers who stand up for the free speech rights of their students. Unfortunately, advisers, when suing on their own behalf, have typically not fared well. Courts have generally held that when a newspaper is censored, it is the students’ — not the adviser’s — First Amendment rights that are at issue.

It simply common sense that allowing school officials to threaten the career of an adviser — particularly one beloved and respected by her students, as was Halas — could have a chilling effect on the ability of students to engage in robust, meaningful news coverage. It is not clear, unfortunately, that a judge will necessarily see it the same way.

Case: David v. Board of Education of Blue Springs, No. 98-1152-CV-W-1 (W.D.Mo., filed Oct. 30, 1998).