Principal’s censorship, prior review policies violate state law, student reporters allege

ARKANSAS — Arkansas is one of six anti-Hazelwoodstates—so-called because in 1995 the state legislature enacted a lawprotecting student free expression rights. But students who work for thenewspaper at Fordyce High School are facing a censorship policy introduced byPrincipal Bobby Brown on Jan. 27 that the students claim violates the state law.

The Arkansas Student Publications Act allows students to freely expressthemselves in student publications, unless that expression is libelous orobscene. The act also requires school districts to adopt student publicationspolicies that follow the act’s provisions.

Jayce Ables, co-editor ofthe school’s paper, the Hi-Times, said the policy iswrong.

“We have the right to write whatever we want [unless it fallsunder a limitation cited in the act],” Ables said.

Brown introduced theprior review policy after objecting to content in two editions of theHi-Times: an article criticizing the school’s test schedule and astudent’s quote that administrators thought was sexual in nature.

Thequote included a female student’s plans for Valentine’s Day. Shesaid she planned to cook for her boyfriend and watch some “lovevideos,” and added that “maybe a little later on something specialwill go down.”

Brown thought the newspaper adviser, Jennifer Baker, hadfailed to “properly supervise” and had caused“inaccuracies” and “distasteful content” to be printedin the newspaper, according to the policy that Brown required Baker tosign.

“[School] publications, as well as the content of studentexpression in school-sponsored activities, shall be subject to the editorialcontrol of the District’s administration whose actions shall be reasonablyrelated to legitimate pedagogical concerns and adhere to the followinglimitations,” Brown’s policy states.

The policy also says theadministration may prohibit content that is “ungrammatical, poorlywritten, inadequately researched, biased or prejudiced, vulgar or profane, orunsuitable for immature audiences,” which echoes language from theHazelwood ruling, as opposed to the less restrictive Tinkerstandard that the Arkansas Student Publications Act was modeled after.

Thestudent newspaper staff and Baker are appealing the policy to the Fordyce SchoolBoard.

Baker said other faculty members are against her decision to tell herstudents that she believes the policy should be repealed because it restrictstheir press freedoms.

“[The policy] has forced me not only to talk thetalk, but walk the walk,” Baker said. “Because it’s one thingto say you believe in civil liberties [but] it’s another to actually haveto fight for them and be willing to lose a job over them.”

Baker wasnot rehired for the 2005-2006 school year. She suspects this decision is theresult of her stance against the policy.

Assistant principal David Littlesaid the policy is modeled after one adopted by the Fordyce School Board. Littledefended the school’s right to institute it.

“Whether or not[our] school policy is right or wrong, that’s not for us to decide asadministrators,” Little said. “It is our job to ensure the policy isadhered to.”

Bruce Plopper, a journalism professor at the Universityof Arkansas, was involved in the creation of the Arkansas Student PublicationsAct in 1995. Plopper said there is “no question” that Brown’spolicy violates the act.

The board has sought the advice of an attorney forthe Arkansas School Boards Association, Kristin Gould, for assistance beforereaching a decision.

The policy was temporarily lifted at the March 14 boardmeeting, pending a response from Gould. According to board member Tom Wynne,Gould is reviewing the policy, the Arkansas Student Publications Act and federallaw to determine if the policy is legal. The next board meeting is May 9.

Baker and the co-editors said they will pursue litigation if the policy isnot overturned.

In 1997, Plopper conducted a study with researcher BillDowns to learn how many schools had instituted student publications policies bythat time. Plopper said 25 percent of schools did not have policies and of thosethat did, many violated the act but were not called on theirillegality.

“It takes someone to sue the school to get them to change[the policy],” Plopper said. “And people just don’t do that in[Arkansas].”