Judge throws out students’ plea

\nMISSOURI – She has been called by students John David and\nMatt Sevart the best teacher and mentor they ever had. Sevart\nsaid that her advising of the school newspaper was top notch and\nresembled what he anticipates to be a real newspaper job. Her\ntough but fair advising left him feeling inspired and accomplished\nwhenever he finished an article. So imagine these students’ dismay\nwhen they learned their beloved adviser, Valerie Halas, was fired\nfrom her job, all because she refused to censor articles and\nlet the students be the editors of their student newspaper.

Claiming the action violated their First Amendment rights, Sevart\nand David, along with two other students, Kandace Callwell and\nRick Raven, took their school, Blue Springs South High School,\nto court, only to receive a disheartening lesson in censorship.\nThe judge dismissed their case in February.

“He said that we were not a public forum, but we are. We\nare a public forum,” David said.

The path to Halas’ dismissal began three years ago when the newspaper\nstaff, after some investigative reporting, wrote an article naming\nlocal stores who sold cigarettes to minors. When the school’s\nprincipal, Dennis Littrell, read it, he said the article could\nonly run if the names of the businesses were omitted. The students\nrefused and then took their article to a local newspaper, which\nagreed to publish it.

After much publicity about the censorship, Littrell allowed the\nstudent newspaper, the Jaguar Journal, to finally publish\nthe complete story, since the names were already public.

What seemed to be a victory for the newspaper staff, resulted\nin Halas’ worst nightmare-four evaluations in two years, more\nthan any other teacher, the last conducted by the principal himself.\nThe result was her removal as newspaper adviser, although she\nwas allowed to keep her job as an English teacher.

Halas scored above-average marks in her first three evaluations,\nwhich were conducted by the school’s activity director immediately\nfollowing the publication of the cigarette article. Since then,\nthe Jaguar Journal published articles about a teacher resigning\nand the German club not being allowed to visit a local middle\nschool during school hours to perform plays, both of which Littrell\ndisapproved of. He accused Halas and the staff of deliberately\nfinding “dirt” to print in the newspaper.

“Whatever happened to the idea that a high school paper should\nhighlight all the positives that the students are involved in?”\nLittrell wrote to Halas.

In the spring of 1998, Littrell took it upon himself to evaluate\nHalas, and afterward, recommended that her contract as newspaper\nadviser not be renewed.

The recommendation was granted.

Her students then took action. David, Sevart, Callwell and Raven\ncontacted attorney Scott Turner, who filed suit against the school\nlast November. At the preliminary hearing in December, Judge\nDean Whipple denied Turner’s request to reinstate Halas, ruling\nthat only Halas herself could sue for that relief. Whipple also\nruled that the school newspaper was not a public forum entitled\nto strong First Amendment protection, because it was part of the\nschool’s curriculum.

In February, Whipple threw out the case after the school district\nfiled a motion to do just that. The Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood\ndecision allowed administrators to censor unless their censorship\nwas unreasonable, ruled Whipple, a standard he said the students\ncould not meet.

David and Sevart say they want to appeal.

Both students are displeased with the current newspaper under\nthe new adviser. Sevart says he has quit the publication staff\nbecause of poorly written articles and bland story ideas. David\nsaid the new adviser lets Littrell have prior review of the publication,\nwhich is legal under Hazelwood, but something Halas never\ntolerated.

“Mrs. Halas believed in real journalism,” said David,\n”and that’s not real journalism.”

David said he wanted to write an article about Halas’ dismissal\nas adviser in the newspaper, but it was not printed as he intended.\nThe new adviser would only allow it to run as a commentary, according\nto David, and not a news article.

“I feel like I don’t have any rights when I go to school,\nand they did this just by taking away a single teacher,”\nhe said.

“What they’re saying is that the First Amendment doesn’t\napply to teens. It’s only for adults. It’s only for newspapers,\nand not student newspapers,” Sevart said.

“This case demonstrates the devastating impact of Hazelwood,”\nsaid Student Press Law Center Executive Director Mark Goodman.\n”The idea that a school can get away with removing an adviser\nin retaliation for what everyone agrees was great journalism by\nher students is extremely disturbing. The Blue Springs South\nadministration should be ashamed.”

As for Halas, she said she is very proud of her students, because\nshe always taught them to stand up for what they believe in. \nThe pain of her removal still exists, she said, but is slowly\nbeginning to ease.

“I’m finally starting to sleep through the night. It’s still\nhard, but I’m dealing with it.” \n