Kan. student newspaper will run previously censored anti-censorship column

KANSAS — McPherson High School’s student newspaper staffwill run a previously censored column Friday explaining the spread of whitespace that was printed in the preceding issue after adviser Todd Brittinghamclaimed the right to censor articles he deemed controversial.

The second issue of The High Life was distributed Sept. 11 with acompletely blank section where a centerpiece about two pregnant teenagers at thehigh school was supposed to run. The article, written by staff writer JeniArbuckle, comprised written accounts as told by the two students.

Editor-in-Chief Nikki Wentling wrote an explanation of the blank page to beprinted in the third issue, which was initially denied and later accepted afterapproval from the school’s principal, detailing why the section was leftblank, and the rights of student journalists.

“I respect the administration’s decision to withdraw thecontent of the page from the newspaper,” Wentling wrote. “However,this does not mean that we will hesitate from reporting on important andcontroversial subjects. We as a staff have moved on to produce this issue of thenewspaper with the same beliefs that we always have — that press isessential to maintaining a healthy democracy, that a free student press isessential to maintaining the free exchange of ideas on a school campus and thatwe have an obligation to serve as a voice for the student body.”

“There was more to it than just the article itself,” PrincipalBret McClendon said. “My understanding in talking with Mr. Brittingham isthat he had asked for some changes to be made well in advance, regarding issueswith the use of minors in the story, and the students simply chose not to dothat.”

Brittingham told the editors that the story could not run unless theyremoved the students’ names and photographs, and shifted the focus of thestory, according to Wentling. He said when the story was initially assigned, itwas supposed to focus on an English teacher at the high school who had gottenpregnant as opposed to the two students.

“Originally the story was about a teacher who was pregnant … whathappens when the teacher goes [on maternity leave],” Brittingham said.”A week later the story was turned in and nothing had been changed.”

But Wentling and Managing Editor Brent Gipson refused to make the changes,believing the story was significant and produced with sound journalisticprinciples. The night the issue was to be sent to the printer, Brittinghaminsisted the article be discussed with the school’s principal before itcould be published. After speaking with the principal, the students were toldnot to run the story.

Brittingham cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in HazelwoodSchool District v. Kuhlmeier as justification for censoring the article,Wentling said. But the Student Free Expression Law established in Kansas in 1992renders censoring articles in student publications that are not libelous,obscene or disruptive to the curriculum unlawful.

“States can always grant more rights than the constitutionrequires,” said Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate at the Student Press LawCenter. “All the Supreme Court said is that federal law requires a minimumin the standard in Hazelwood. And Kansas requires more.”

The controversy of the issue prompted Brittingham to discuss and assignessays about both the Hazelwood and Bethel School District v.Fraser Supreme Court cases, much to the students’ dismay, Wentlingsaid.

“Most of us had gone to journalism camp every summer, and they hadbeaten [our rights] into our heads, so I was just angry.”

The third issue of the paper, to be distributed Friday, will includeWentling’s column. She said the newsroom atmosphere is getting back tonormal, but the staff is nervous about the future of The High Life.

“Every time we try to do controversy there are problems, but I neverthought he would say we couldn’t do the whole page,” Wentling said.”I’m afraid that people won’t join staff next year.