H.S. student editors say principal’s policy violates Arkansas anti-Hazelwood law

ARKANSAS — The co-editors of Fordyce High School’s student newspaper, Hi-Times, are claiming that a policy their principal recently introduced–requiring his approval of articles before they are published–violates a state law protecting freedom of expression for students.

The co-editors, Jayce Ables and Kyle Nichols, are referring to the 1995 Arkansas Student Publications Act, which was enacted to extend certain rights to student journalists that were limited under the 1988 Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier Supreme Court decision. The act guarantees student rights of expression, outlines the categories of student publication content that are not protected by the law, such as libelous and obscene material, and requires school districts to adopt student publications policies that conform to the act’s stipulations.

The policy that was introduced by the principal, Bobbie Brown, violates the act’s provisions, the students argue.

“We have the right to write whatever we want and not have it be censored [unless it falls within one of the unprotected categories],” Ables said, noting that the Arkansas Student Publications Act covers student newspapers, including the Hi-Times.

Brown introduced his policy in a meeting on Jan. 27 between Brown, assistant principal David Little and newspaper adviser Jennifer Baker, following the administration’s objection to content in two separate newspaper editions: an article that criticized the school’s test schedule and a student’s quote that school officials perceived as having a sexual connotation, according to the statement that Brown required Baker to sign.

“For the second straight issue, problems with inaccuracies and distasteful content and general failure to properly supervise what is written in the newspaper have appeared,” the statement read.

The student newspaper is appealing the policy with the aid of an attorney for the Fordyce School Board, Tom Wynne. Wynne contacted an attorney for the Arkansas School Boards Association, Kristen Gould. Gould is reviewing Brown’s policy, the Arkansas Student Publications Act and federal law to determine if Brown’s policy is constitutional.

Wynne said he is solely interested in “doing what’s right.”

“I support our administration and I support our school board,” Wynne said. “But I also support the kids and their right to freedom of speech and their right to free expression. I think with some level heads discussing this we’ll get to where this issue ought to be.”

The Arkansas Student Publications Act requires school districts to adopt policies that allow for students’ right of expression.

“Student publications policies shall recognize that students may exercise their right of expression,” the act reads, and specifies that the right includes expression in school-sponsored publications, even if the publication is financially supported by the school or produced in school facilities, or operates as part of a course curriculum.

But Brown’s policy states that because the newspaper is supported financially by the school and produced using the school facilities, it is considered school-sponsored, and school publications “do not provide a forum for public expression.”

“[School] publications, as well as the content of student expression in school-sponsored activities, shall be subject to the editorial control of the District’s administration whose actions shall be reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns and adhere to the following limitations,” Brown’s policy reads.

In his meeting with Baker, Brown referred to the limitation in his policy that says administrators may regulate publications to prohibit writings that are “ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased or prejudiced, vulgar or profane, or unsuitable for immature audiences,” echoing language from the Hazelwood decision that the Arkansas Student Publications Act was intended to counteract.

Bruce Plopper, a journalism professor at the University of Arkansas, was a key supporter of the Arkansas Student Publications Act when it was proposed. Plopper said that even though schools were required to adopt policies by the time the act took effect in 1995, many schools have not done so.

Plopper and another researcher, Bill Downs, conducted a follow-up study in 1997 that revealed that up to 25 percent of school districts in Arkansas still did not have written student publications policies.

“Of the ones that did have them, quite a few were out of compliance with what the law said they had to have,” Plopper said. “But again it takes someone to sue the school board to get them to change it. And people just don’t do that in this state.”

“What we do know is that the policy [Fordyce High School] is operating under violates the Arkansas Student Publications Act,” Plopper added. “There’s no question about that.”

Assistant principal David Little claimed that Brown’s policy is modeled after an already-existing policy created and distributed to school boards by the Arkansas School Boards Association. Little said Brown was simply “following school policy.”

“We’re charged with adhering to the [Fordyce School Board] policy,” Little said. “Whether or not the school policy is right or wrong, that’s not for us to decide as administrators. It is our job to ensure the policy is adhered to.”

The school board will meet again on March 14. At the meeting, Wynne said he plans to present Gould’s opinion from the Arkansas School Boards Association.

–By Britt Hulit