Washington state high school journalists see article censored on eve of legislature’s vote

WASHINGTON — The newspaper staff at Vashon High School allege that the school principal censored an article that offered criticism of a school official by claiming that the Supreme Court gives educators the right to bar any content they deem at odds with the school’s educational mission.

Instead of the original article that was reportedly censored, the most recent issue of The Riptide featured another article titled “This Issue of The Riptide Was Censored,” which began, “This was not the article intended for this space in The Riptide.”

The article goes on to say that on March 6, Principal Susan Hanson sent a letter to the student staff, saying that she would not allow the newspaper to publish an article, the content of which was not specified.

According to The Riptide, Hanson said in her letter that “a student newspaper is not an appropriate vehicle for airing concerns, complaints or criticisms about District staff,” and that it could cause sufficient disruption and warranted censorship.

In her letter, Hanson cited the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which, she claimed, says a school “need not tolerate” student speech that is “inconsistent” with the “basic educational mission, even though the government could not censor similar speech outside the school,” according to The Riptide.

The Hazelwood decision said that a newspaper without a “policy or practice” establishing it as a public forum for student expression could censored where school officials demonstrated a reasonable educational justification where their censorship was viewpoint neutral.

Hanson’s letter said she was motivated to censor because of concerns about “the fairness and open-mindedness of the article and possible defamation claims,” the newspaper reported.

The newspaper contends with this claim, and argued that the article was written fairly, accurately and objectively and reviewed “both sides of the stories with quotes from multiple sources on each side.”

Efforts to contact Hanson on Monday afternoon were unsuccessful.

Washington state legislators currently are considering a bill that would effectively negate the Hazlewood ruling across the state and protect high school and college student journalists under the same statue. The bill, HB 1307, would declare all publicly funded student newspapers to be open forums, freeing them from the constraints made legal under Hazelwood.

An upcoming legislative deadline mandates that the bill be put to a vote by Wednesday.

Although they could not publish the censored article in the most recent issue, the student reporters at Vashon High School will continue to combat the censorship and try to publish the censored piece in the future, according to the newspaper.

By Brian Hudson, SPLC staff writer