Censorship case becomes open meetings suit

Many aspiring journalists learn about press censorship laws in a textbook or the national news, but students at Danbury High School witnessed it live when their newspapers were locked up and they were locked out of a public school board meeting.

Danbury High School’s student newspaper, The D-Town Press, was censored by school officials for its December 2006 issue devoted to topics on sex.

The D-Town Press chose to devote its December issue to sex because, according to a survey the staff conducted, 51 percent of students at the Danbury, Texas high school are sexually active, according to adviser Kristi Piper.

Little did they realize, school officials had a much different conception of what pertinent high school issues are, Piper said. School officials contacted Piper and told her the content was “not age appropriate” and that the principal needed to review the newspaper prior to publication, even though she said she had never submitted the newspaper for prior review in her eight years of advising.

“I regret that it came to this,” Piper said. “There was nothing offensive in the paper. Had it been released, there wouldn’t have been any consequences.”

Although the district’s policy states that all approved publications “shall be under the control of the school administration and the Board,” there is no requirement for prior review.

Three students filed a formal complaint to the principal, which was denied. These were appealed through the district’s appeals process to the school board where the students were scheduled to read their appeals at the March 19 meeting, Piper said.

Several parents and students joined Piper in attending the meeting, but were unexpectedly asked to leave the room so the board could “set up,” Piper said. Superintendent Eric Grimmett then asked the two students who arrived to read their appeal to enter, restricting access to all audience members, including a reporter from the Brazosport Facts, a local newspaper in Clute, Texas.

Facts Editor and Publisher Bill Cornwell said his reporter informed the board twice that the closed meeting was not legal, but the board cited a state provision on personnel issues as its protection and continued with the executive session, voting 5-1 against the students’ appeal.

“I was more shocked than upset,” Piper said. “I didn’t really know much about this process. Now having looked at the open meetings act, this was clearly not a personnel matter.”

The Facts filed an open meetings lawsuit against the district that claimed their actions were protected by Section 551-074 of the Texas Open Meetings Act that deals with personnel issues, according to Cornwell.

Because the students were specifically addressing the newspaper conflict, Cornwell argued that the specified section does not protect the district.

“You can only go into executive session if you’re discussing some type of legal action, personnel matter or property issue,” Cornwell said. “We feel like that what they did was…well, they broke the law.”

Superintendent Eric Grimmett did not return a phone call for comment, but he did release a statement to the Facts, saying, “We believe the district acted in accordance with the law in all respects. In light of pending litigation, no further comment is appropriate.”

The school board approved a motion April 16 to counter-sue the newspaper for any attorney’s fees should the lawsuit be resolved in the district’s favor.

In regards to the withheld newspapers, Piper said the Press might attempt to run the articles separately in future editions of the newspaper.

“I kind of sense that they’re not through,” Piper said.