School board considers new policies for Vt. high school paper

VERMONT — Concerns for student privacy have evolved into adiscussion on how best to oversee the student newspaper at Middlebury Union HighSchool.

School board members began Wednesday to draft a new policy for studentpublications in response to a controversial story about marijuana use theTigers’ Print ran in April, in which the paper quoted by name a17-year-old student who said he used marijuana during the school day andreturned to class high.

“It’s been monumentally difficult to move past this one incident to focuson a larger picture,” Tim O’Leary, current newspaper adviser and an Englishteacher, told the Student Press Law Center in an e-mail.

Principal William Lawson advised against using the student’s name but didnot forbid it. The student stood by his decision to be named in the article,O’Leary said. Although Lawson instituted prior review after publication of theApril edition, nothing was censored in the May issue.

School board Chairman Tom Beyer said the school’s major concern is withjournalistic responsibility, who has oversight, and who is ultimatelyresponsible for content and student confidentiality.

“I think you can delegate authority but you can’t necessarily delegateresponsibility,” Beyer said.

The school board policy committee decided at its meeting Wednesday to draftthree different policies for newspaper supervision, each based on differentsuggestions.

One will follow a sample from the Vermont School Board Association, whichsuggests writing a statement of purpose for the publication, roles for theadviser and student editors, and how to resolve editorial differences.

Another draft will follow advice from the school district’s legal counsel,who suggested implementing prior review and including in the written policy thatthe newspaper be labeled a non-public forum that is “not open for all publicexpression.” However, the attorney, Michael Marks, noted that the school couldnot censor articles based solely on controversial content even in a non-publicforum.

The third set of suggestions comes from SPLC Executive Director FrankLoMonte, who wrote in a letter to the board that the paper probably would be considered a public forum becauseit is printed and distributed to an audience that includes off-campus readers bya local community paper, the Addison County Independent. LoMonte alsowarned that implementation of a prior review policy could be consideredretaliatory because it came after a controversial editorial decision. Themotivation and timing of a prior review decision could be called into questionin court.

In an e-mail to Beyer, LoMonte also addressed the school’s concerns aboutprivacy.

“As a matter of law, there is absolutely no prohibition on the use of namesof minors in a student paper, and indeed, every newspaper in America does soevery day with no written consent,” he said.

Student and staff member Nick Atherton said the atmosphere at the paper haschanged since the April issue. As a courtesy, the students had always given acopy of the paper to the administration when they sent it to the publishers, buthe said he is concerned that prior review might chill student speech.

“Are we self-censoring ourselves because of the idea that we might get ourarticles cut?” he asked. “Are we not putting out the same quality of paper?”

Two Middlebury Union parents and a local community journalist revived thepaper in time for the 2006-07 school year after a years-long hiatus. KevinKelley, the father of an MUHS student, worked together with Robert Cohen,another MUHS parent, to devise a plan with the school board. The Tigers’Print was permitted to publish as an extracurricular activity as long as itcould be printed at no cost to the school, Cohen said.

This school year a journalism course was reintroduced in the Englishdepartment and O’Leary was selected as adviser. A formal written policy wasnever introduced, and the general practice has been that the students andO’Leary brainstorm ideas but he has the authority to veto stories, he said.While he has not felt the need to censor anything, O’Leary said he does promotejournalistic ideals.

Students and parents at Tuesday’s board meeting were concerned that O’Learymight no longer be teaching the class. O’Leary said if prior review is enforced,he does not want to be the adviser. And Lawson proposed labeling the class”Publications” and putting it under the control of the business teacher, whoalso teaches yearbook. Administrators said the move is dictated by staffingissues, although that decision is not final.

But O’Leary said he thinks the staffing rationale is a smoke screen,explaining that with seven teachers in the English department each teaching fiveclasses, there is more than enough room for the journalism class.

“It’s hard to separate near simultaneous occurrences that theadministration didn’t like an article, they mandated a pre-screening process,and they decided I would not teach it next year,” he said. “When all of thathappens real close together, it’s hard to see how there is not a cause andeffect relationship amongst those actions.”

But Beyer said that coincidence is not necessarily causality.

“Because two things happen at relatively the same time does not mean theyare related,” he said. “I think that’s a misperception.”