Student newspaper containing critical article confiscated at Iowa high school

IOWA — Administrators confiscated the remaining copies of The Growl at Bettendorf High School last Wednesday because of an article that questioned the consistency of penalties given to student athletes who had violated the school’s student conduct policies.

Bettendorf Community School District Superintendent Theron Schutte said the decision to remove the papers was made because of concerns about potential violations concerning student confidentiality and statements that could be deemed as potentially libelous.

“We had strong concerns about the potential for material and substantial disruption being created at the school by the release of that article, too,” Schutte said.

Editor-in-chief Brittani Cobb said she began writing the article as a “classic football wrap-up.” After interviewing a few players, she said they were candid with her about being suspended for drinking, doing drugs and cheating on tests.

“From there it just kind of turned into a totally different story,” Cobb said.

Knowing the controversy that could arise from her story, Cobb said she had students who were quoted read over their quotes and sign off on their accuracy. Cobb followed up with the students she interviewed and suggested they ask their parents if they could be quoted for the article. She said that she continued to follow up with her sources to see if they had any questions or concerns and to confirm whether or not they wanted to be quoted.

“And I think it’s really shown through how these boys, … they wanted their story out and they wanted people to see, this is how the administration you know, has abused everything,” Cobb said.

Cobb said she has received a lot of support from students and parents in the community.

“Even the students that were mentioned in the article who told me the story that they had been drinking and getting in trouble for it, those are the ones that have been supporting me the most,” Cobb said.

More than 60 students wore t-shirts to school in support of freedom of the press last Friday, according to Cobb, and “students have been re-copying the article and distributing it at school. They put it on Facebook, so it really has turned into a large issue.”

Cobb said Principal Jimmy Casas removed her from her position as editor-in-chief. She said she has been told she can remain a reporter for The Growl if she meets specific requirements.

“I would have had to [apologize] to my adviser, and rules would have been set up for me specifically as to what I could do in the class and write,” Cobb said. “However, no code of conduct or rules would be set up for the rest of the class.”

She said she has the option to appeal her removal, but has not yet come to a decision.

Cobb said there is no prior review or code of conduct set for the journalism class.

“It’s just been really overwhelming to see all of the positive support and people behind me, it’s just been really nice,” Cobb said.

Mike Hiestand, an attorney and legal consultant to the Student Press Law Center, said neither student confidentiality nor disruption seems to be a legitimate legal concern in this situation.

“It sounds to me like the reporter went above and beyond what she needed to do to ensure the student athletes were okay with having their stories told,” Hiestand said.

He also said that the only disruption he could see was that created by the principal that censored the article.

“The thing I think that school officials need to understand here is that this is a student newspaper and not a public relations newsletter of the district. There is a reason that Iowa lawmakers enacted a student free expression law.” Hiestand said.

In addition to the First Amendment, Iowa’s student free expression law gives student journalists in public high schools added protection against administrative censorship.