ARKANSAS — Strict guidelines imposed on an award-winningstudent newspaper are threatening its independence in a statewith a law protecting the rights of student journalists.
Editor Holly Ballard said the new guidelines were triggeredby the paper’s coverage of school board meetings and articlescritical of Superintendent Vickie Logan.
The censorship escalated when a feature writer of The Prospectivedecided to run a series on discrimination at Bryant High School.
The first two articles on racial and religious discriminationran without a problem, Ballard said, but the third article causedsome friction.
The article addressed sexual discrimination at Bryant HighSchool and involved the use of confidential questionnaires frequentlyused by Prospective reporters to "ensure accuracyof quotes" and cut down on the amount of classtime used foran interview.
The author handed out the questionnaire to a select group ofstudents and promised anonymity.
Complaints started pouring into the principal’s office fromstudents and parents alike whom "felt the questionnairesimplied they were homosexual and that they were under attack bythe journalism staff," Ballard said.
Principal Danny Spadoni confiscated the questionnaires fromthe newspaper office unbeknownst to the adviser and prohibitedthe paper from running the final article in the series, Ballardsaid.
"A week or two later [Spadoni] presented Ms. Sorrows witheight points and made her sign a document that said if she didn’tabide by these, her job could be in jeopardy," Ballard said.
"Our journalism teacher has been up to her head with criticism,"Ballard said of Sorrows. "Her contract is up for renewalbut it hasn’t been renewed yet."
The new guidelines require The Prospective to directstudent journalists away from "controversial issues,"while requiring close monitoring of work, approval of all surveysand a "complete copy" of the newspaper in the principal’spossession 48 hours prior to printing.
The newspaper countered the guidelines by submitting a formalrebuttal. It brought attention to the current editorial policyin place, which states "editorial materials and advertisementsshall not be excluded because such material is controversial,"and urged the principal to define "inappropriate material."
The rebuttal went on to state the paper’s objection to submittingmaterials for approval, saying the measure is "an attemptto censor the paper." The students particularly noted thatunder Arkansas law, it is "illegal for administration tocensor a student publication."
Under Arkansas Code Annotated Sections 6-18-1201 through 6-18-1204,school boards are required to adopt a "written student publicationspolicy developed in conjunction with student publication adviser(s)and the appropriate school administrator(s)" that recognizesstudents’ rights to free expression.
According to an article in Feb. 27 edition of the ArkansasDemocrat-Gazette, the journalism teacher had not been consultedon the new guidelines and the school board had not approved them.
Under the current handbook policy, principal consultation comesonly if an editor and adviser disagree. Prospective editorsalready hand in a copy to the principal prior to publication asa courtesy.
"We told him we were willing to compromise," Ballardsaid, "and drafted a compromise on a few points we felt wecould budge on like submitting a complete as possible copy ofthe paper 48 hours before print."
"I hope no legal action is necessary but we are not willingto compromise rights," Ballard said.
View the Arkansas Student Publications Act in our Law Library.