Former Ariz. high school student journalists continue censorship battle

ARIZONA — Former Thunderbird High School student journalists arepursuing legal action in an attempt to continue fighting a battle overcensorship of their high school’s newspaper, The Challenge.

The decision to pursue legal action came after the district’sgoverning board’s decision August 19 that Principal Matt Belden andSuperintendent Dr. Jennifer Johnson were justified in pulling a front-page storyabout student testing from the May 8 issue, said then Editor-in-Chief VaughnHillyard, who is currently enrolled in Arizona State University’sjournalism school. Belden, who acts as publisher of the paper, called thearticle inaccurate and the reporting shoddy, Hillyard said.

The issue of The Challenge in question was sent to print May 6, anddistributed May 8 with 8 1/2 inches of white space on the cover, where the storywas to run.

“We wanted to make some sort of statement,” Hillyard said.”Some people wanted to print ‘censored’ in big letters runningacross the front page, but we decided that would be lame and disrespectful.That’s why we wanted to print the white space. It got a lot of peopletalking and asking questions.”

Hillyard has spoken to David Bodney of Steptoe & Johnson LLP, anArizona attorney specializing in First Amendment law, about taking thestudents’ case pro bono. Hillyard is hoping by going to court, theoriginal pulled story will run in a future issue of the paper, and this type ofprior review will never happen again.

“What makes this case so important is the censorship occurredstrictly because the story was critical of a decision made by schoolofficials,” said Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate at the Student PressLaw Center. “Hopefully the court will remind school officials what theirobligations are as school officials. That’s what makes this casedifferent; the act is just utterly indefensible.”

The article started out April 15 as an effort to make the newspaper morecompelling to students. Vaughn said he and the other staff members wanted to runmore articles about stories that “mattered.” Staff writer TeresaHauer volunteered to take the assignment. She interviewed Belden, whoseresponses Hillyard said were incomplete. Belden recommended she interviewAssistant Superintendent John Croteau and Johnson, both of whom failed torespond.

It was between April 15 and May 6, the paper’s printing date, thatBelden began to grow apprehensive of running the article.

“He kept coming up with excuses for why the story couldn’trun,” Hillyard said.

At 2:45 p.m. May 6, the day of the issue’s printing deadline, Beldenannounced he was pulling the article.

“There was conversation weeks prior to the article being pulled,concern about the article was expressed weeks prior to it ever going topress,” said Kim Mesquita, administrator of community relations forGlendale Union High School District. “[The response] shocked us… thekids knew there was discussion…they had no plans to have a backup articleready.”

But Hillyard said he and other staff members were not willing to give up.After the issue with the half-blank front page came out, Hillyard calledSuperintendent Johnson to schedule a meeting for May 13. Hillyard was not awareJohnson considered this meeting a “second hearing,” occurring afterthe “first hearing” that the students had on May 6 with Belden.Johnson was to act as appeals officer.

After Hillyard felt tricked into the second hearing, he scheduled anofficial hearing for July 7 at the district office, held by Rob Haws, thehearing officer hired to hear the case between the administrators and thenewspaper staff. Haws upheld the superintendent’s decision.

Hillyard said after this hearing, administrators expected the case to blowover. But Hillyard was and is still not willing to accept defeat.

“We want to be told that we were right,” Hillyard said. “We don’t want something like this to happen everagain.”

For More Information:

  • Students ask school board to decide if principal was right in not allowing story to print News Flash, 6/10/2009