Strict guidelines imposed on an award-winning student newspaper are threatening its independence in a state with a law protecting the rights of student journalists.
Editor Holly Ballard said the new guidelines were triggered by the paper’s coverage of school board meetings and articles critical of Superintendent Vickie Logan.
The censorship escalated when a feature writer of The Prospective decided to run a series on discrimination at Bryant High School.
The first two articles on racial and religious discrimination ran without a problem, Ballard said, but the third article caused some friction.
The article addressed sexual discrimination at Bryant High School and involved the use of confidential questionnaires frequently used by Prospective reporters to “ensure accuracy of quotes” and cut down on the amount of classtime used for an interview.
The author handed out the questionnaire to a select group of students and promised anonymity.
Complaints started coming into the principal’s office from students and parents alike that “felt the questionnaires implied they were homosexual and that they were under attack by the journalism staff,” Ballard said.
Principal Danny Spadoni confiscated the questionnaires from the newspaper office unbeknownst to adviser Margaret Sorrows and prohibited the paper from running the final article in the series, Ballard said.
“A week or two later [Spadoni] presented Ms. Sorrows with eight points and made her sign a document that said if she didn’t abide by these, her job could be in jeopardy,” Ballard said.
The new guidelines require The Prospective to direct student journalists away from “controversial issues,” while requiring close monitoring of work, approval of all surveys and a “complete copy” of the newspaper in the principal’s possession 48 hours prior to printing.
The newspaper countered the guidelines by submitting a formal rebuttal. It brought attention to the current editorial policy in place, which states, “editorial materials and advertisements shall 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 submitting materials for approval, saying the measure is “an attempt to censor the paper.” The students particularly noted that under Arkansas student free-expression law, it is “illegal for administration to censor a student publication.”
“We told him we were willing to compromise,” Ballard said, “and drafted a compromise on a few points we felt we could budge on like submitting a complete as possible copy of the paper 48 hours before print.”
“I hope no legal action is necessary but we are not willing to compromise rights,” Ballard said.