Students appeal to school board after superintendent asks to prior review publication

MINNESOTA — Students at Faribault High School in Faribault,Minn., are appealing to their school board after the superintendent shut downthe student newspaper Monday.

The dispute arose after student editors of the Echo worked with thelocal newspaper, Faribault Daily News, to report a story about a middleschool teacher under investigation by the school district. The students prepareda story for the high school newspaper about Shelly Prieve, a teacher underinvestigation based on allegations that she used “inappropriate communication”with students, according the Faribault Daily News. But Superintendent BobStepaniak decided without prior review by administrators, the story could not bepublished.

“The issue here is clearly whether district administration can look at anarticle before publication,” Stepaniak told the Star Tribune inMinneapolis, Minn. “That’s what it boils down to.”

Stepaniak said he was concerned about the article after meeting twice withthe student editors because he did not want the story to lead to litigationagainst the school district. So he asked to see the story before it waspublished.

The story in question was a collaborative effort between the students andprofessional reporters, the Faribault Daily News reported. Thestudents shared a byline with the professional reporters in the community paperand in the story to be printed in the Echo.

After Stepaniak requested to review the story, the students met with himand sought assistance from the Student Press Law Center. Christen Hildebrandt,Vicky Carrillo and Ben Jackson responded to Stepaniak’s request with a lettersaying they felt his request trampled on their rights.

“What you believe [is] inappropriate concerning the Prieve story is not alegal standard for prior review or from stopping an article from publication ina student newspaper and violates our rights as journalists,” the letter said.”Therefore we will not submit to prior review. You will have to shut us down ifyou wish to continue down this path.”

The newspaper adviser, Kelly Zwagerman, also wrote a letter to Stepaniak,appealing for him to redraw his request. In the letter, she said she has beenthe newspaper adviser for over 20 years and has never had a story lead tolitigation.

“Any article about Ms. Prieve that might be printed in the Echo would notbe obscene; is not libelous; does not promote a service not permitted by minors;does not encourage students to commit illegal acts or violate schoolregulations; will not cause a disruption of the orderly operation of school; anddoes not advocate harassment or violence or prejudice,” she said in the letter.Three days later, Stepaniak responded by shutting down the Echo“temporarily.” Stepaniak said the paper will not publish again until the schoolboard decides what policy to enforce. The students plan to appeal to the boardThursday night to decide whether the superintendent has the right to priorreview the paper.

“The issue is now not so much what is in the article but whether or not Ihave the right to prior review,” Stepaniak said in an e-mail.

Both sides made compromises, Stepaniak said. The students offered to letthe school district’s attorney review the story, but Stepaniak said he disagreedwith the idea because “it skirted the main issue.”

Stepaniak cited Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, whichacknowledged school official’s right to prior review, in recent interviews withthe Star Tribune. Zwagerman used Dean v. Utica Community Schools,a case decided after Hazelwood that said administrators could not censorcontent without an educational reason, in her defense of the students.

SPLC’s attorney advocate, Adam Goldstein, said the Utica decisionmeans, “Hazelwood doesn’t protect censorship designed to avoidembarrassment.”

Stepaniak said the district has never implemented a prior review policy inthe past.

“I am not anxious to have the administration ‘looking over the shoulder’ ofour student newspaper,” he said. “However, there are times when there may be aneed to and then I feel the administration has that right.”

But Goldstein says that under Hazelwood school administrators cannot”pick and choose” what stories to prior review.

“You can’t look at Hazelwood, which says prior review can be aneducational practice that doesn’t offend the First Amendment, and read it assaying that a school official can prior review whenever a story makes him lookbad,” Goldstein said.

Goldstein emphasized that any form of censorship requires heavyjustification.

“Suspending freedom of speech, even a student’s, should be the rarest ofthings undertaken under extraordinary circumstances — and when we do it,we should be able to explain why,” Goldstein said.