In early December 2010, Leibert Phillips suffered whatappeared to be a harmless ankle sprain during a school wrestling match.
Three weeks later, Phillips lay on a hospital bed, fightingfor his life.
He died Jan. 1.
The student newspaper at Phillips’ school — the OverlandScout at Overland High School in Aurora, Colo. — learned that hedied after a blood clot in his right leg traveled to his lungs, causing apulmonary embolism.
According to Phillips’ death certificate, the clot was aresult of the injury sustained during the wrestling match.
The school never reported the cause of death to the public;the student journalists did – or at least they tried.
Before the staff’s piece on Phillips ever saw the light ofday, Overland administrators shut down the newspaper and removed the students’adviser.
While the Overland Scout ordeal waseventually resolved, the story is just one in a series of recent censorshipincidents where the content in question has centered on student injuries atschool.
“There are times when you can make a good argument thatcensorship is necessary to protect a young audience in extreme circumstances,”said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. “Areasonable person just can’t make that argument when you’re covering up aninjury or safety hazard at school.”
From the Overland controversy to a dispute over whether astudent journalist can publish photographs that could show his school at fault,LoMonte said he has noticed a “definite anecdotal trend” of this particularcensorship breed.
In almost all cases, he sees a bigger, underlying issue athand: school liability.
“When schools go into liability-defense mode, that’s whenthey’re known to act the most irrationally,” LoMonte said. “Just a whiff of theword ‘lawsuit’ causes administrators to act in an over-the-top way … But whenyou remove content that simply makes you look bad, that’s one of mostindefensible forms of censorship there is.”
Trouble in Colorado
Though the students at Overland were informed of thenewspaper’s shutdown in mid-March, the administration’s choice to act was along time coming.
After the staff ran two columns early in the school year —one on stereotypes of black students at school and another on coping withsuicide — Principal Leon Lundie placed the newspaper under prior review.
Though the staff was cautious with its content after that,opinions editor Jaclyn Gutierrez said there was “no hesitation at all” when itcame to covering Phillips’ death.
“Out of respect for him and the people who knew him, this issomething that should be reported,” said Gutierrez, a rising senior. “Wethought that readers needed to know not just how he died, but more importantlyhow he lived.”
The article, written by editor-in-chief Lori Schafer,consisted primarily of remembrances from Phillips’ mother, Linda Kore. Therewas only a brief mention of the cause of death.
While Schafer said the staff believed it was more importantto honor Phillips’ life, she emphasized that “so many people knew that astudent had passed away, but they didn’t know what had caused it. We needed totell that.”
Gutierrez said Lundie initially informed the studentjournalists that the cause of death was stated incorrectly in the story couldnot be printed.
When the students presented Lundie with the deathcertificate to back up their reporting, Gutierrez said he told them “this was adistrict matter and was too big for a school newspaper [to cover].”
Soon after, students said the newspaper was shut down andthe adviser, Laura Sudik, was told she was being removed from her position.
Cherry Creek School District spokeswoman Tustin Amolemaintains that the administration never prevented the student journalists fromrunning the story, but merely “suggested to them that they go beyond a singlesource and speak with more people to balance the story. At no time did anybodytell them not to print it.”
She added that Sudik’s supposed removal was “amisunderstanding.”
“The adviser was never removed from the newspaper,” shesaid.
While Sudik ultimately was allowed to keep her position, shesaid the school made its intentions clear.
“I was told clearly that I was fired from the position forthe next year initially … because [the administration] wanted the newspaper togo in a different direction,” Sudik said. “If there was a miscommunication, itcame from their end.”
With statewide and national support, Gutierrez and Schaferwaged a public relations campaign that succeeded in changing theadministration’s mind.
“When push came to shove, he (Lundie) backed down fromcensoring an article that could have made the school look bad,” said MarkSilverstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.
Silverstien, who assisted the student journalists incooperation with the SPLC, added that the administration seemed to be“concerned primarily about their liability for the wrongful death of astudent.”
On April 4, Lundie announced in a statement that thenewspaper would resume regular operations – without prior review and with Sudikleading the program.
In line with the district’s goals, Sudik said the newspaperwill begin publishing an online supplement to its print edition this schoolyear.
Looking back, Gutierrez said Phillips’ injury “was clearlynot the school’s fault. But their covering it up made it seem like it was.”
Carrie Faust, president of the Colorado High School PressAssociation and a teacher in the district, agreed.
“Sports injuries happen all the time,” she said. “For thedistrict to react so extremely to this article makes me think they wereconcerned about liability and reputation. That’s no basis for censorship.”
For Amole, there was “never any negligence on the part ofthe school … This was just an unfortunate series of events that came togetherat one time.”
The students ultimately published the story — with theoriginal mention of Phillips’ cause of death intact — in their April edition.
Though Kore, Phillips’ mother, said she was displeased withhow the school handled the situation, she will not pursue any legal actionagainst the district.
She said the student journalists’ work provided a sense ofclosure in what has otherwise been a trying time.
“They did a wonderful job [with the article],” she said. “Iappreciated everything they did.”
Getting the truth out
Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate at the SPLC, said the fearof liability by school administrators — whether expressed publicly or not — isincreasingly being used as a justification for censorship.
In reality, though, Goldstein explained that it is far morelikely for a school to be held liable for restricting a student journalist’sFirst Amendment rights than for a school to be sued successfully on the basisof what a student newspaper reports.
“It’s not like parents are going to read an article in thenewspaper and suddenly discover that their son or daughter was severely injuredat a school event,” he said. “If the concern is that someone will sue becausethe newspaper accurately reported on what happened, that doesn’t make anylogical sense.”
While the Overland Scout disputecentered on an article in the newspaper, liability issues can extend to otherforms of content.
Chase Snider, former executive editor of PrairieNews Media at Kickapoo High School in Springfield, Mo., knows thatfrom first-hand experience.
Snider, who graduated in May, had a trying senior year withhis school administration.
It began in August 2010 at “How Night” — an annualback-to-school festival that most of the student body attends.
Parts of the festival resemble a “mosh” event — studentsparticipate in a “giant food fight” and fling mud at each other in closequarters, Snider said. School administrators are on hand to supervise.
Midway through last year’s event, though, Snider began tonotice some commotion.
“About 100 or 200 students had created a giant mud pit andwere gathered around it,” he said. As Snider approached the scene, “I noticedthere was a student stuck at the bottom of the pit … clearly in pain.”
Snider began taking photographs, trying to capture what wasunfolding in front of him. He kept his photos general, he said, so as not toshow the injured student’s face.
Soon after, an ambulance arrived to tend to the student — athen-senior girl who ultimately spent time in the hospital — and the crowdreturned to business as usual.
Later the same night, during a “food throwing” event, aclump of peanut butter landed in the mouth of a student who had a peanutallergy, Snider said.
The student, a then-sophomore girl, suffered an allergicreaction, prompting the arrival of a second ambulance.
Both students made full recoveries.
Snider continued to take photos, asking fellow studentjournalists in attendance to start gathering reactions for a story on theevent.
Neither the article nor any of Snider’s photos, however,would ever make their way into print.
On Sept. 1, Snider said his principal instructed him to turnover all of his photos from How Night, claiming that the district needed “evidence”of what had happened at the festival.
Snider complied, but said he was later told the photos and adraft article could never be published.
The school administration cited the Family EducationalRights and Privacy Act, a piece of federal legislation designed to protect theprivacy of student education records, in refusing to release Snider’s photos.
District spokeswoman Teresa Bledsoe wrote in an email thatthe photos have since been returned to the school’s journalism department. Shedeclined to comment further.
To date, Snider has not received the photos.
Goldstein said images captured by a student journalist arethe property of the student, regardless of who owns the equipment used.
“The claim that the district owns the photos because theyown the camera is as utterly, legally baseless as Canon saying that they ownthe pictures because they manufactured the camera,” he said.
Though Snider chose not to pursue legal action, he stillthinks the district’s decision was motivated by a desire to protect itself frompotential liability for student injuries.
“The fact that they stood by and watched as the situation[at How Night] continued to build, I think there’s definitely some liabilitythere,” he said. “If student safety was the first priority, then this shouldhave been handled differently.”
Snider’s problems, however, didn’t end there. A few weekslater, after he tried to take photos of a car accident involving students inthe school parking lot, he was told he would face suspension if he did not puthis camera down.
Upon posting a write-up of the accident to the newspaper’swebsite, Snider was suspended from his role as executive editor for theremainder of the school’s quarter.
Patrick Doran, a Kansas City-based attorney who consultedwith Snider throughout the school year, said “the school saw the photos as theoutput of a school-related function … and felt it was under their umbrella ofrights and obligations to control.”
Though Snider said the remaining months of his senior yearwere tense, he made it through with no more major issues.
Looking back, he said his dealings with the schooladministration showed him the importance of a free student press.
“What I’ve learned most is that there’s a sense in many highschools for student newspapers to act as public relations firms,” he said. “Ifstudent newspapers aren’t going to be allowed to freely operate, then how can acommunity ever be expected to challenge or change something?”
A fine line
While Goldstein said Snider’s experience was a clear-cutinstance of censorship in which the school district was trying to save face,other examples are a bit hazier.
In May, the principal of Libby High School in Libby, Mont.,held the school’s student newspaper, the Tamarack, from newsstandsuntil its staff changed a front-page report about an in-school accident.
The accident occurred when Caleb Lapka, a then-LHS senior,was severely injured in a car care class after a fragmented scrap of steelthrown by another student struck him in the neck.
The student journalists had initially written that the steel“resembled throwing stars” — typically considered violent weapons.
Upon learning of the students’ description, Principal RikRewerts instructed the staff to replace the “throwing stars” reference with“scraps of sheet metal.”
“The story was written very quickly after the accident andcontained an incorrect reference that may have implicated a student … who wasinvolved in the accident,” he said.
Rewerts added that “while I don’t think the school was atany fault for the accident … who knows what would happen with the way the courtsystems are today.”
No legal action has been taken against the school district,he said.
Jolee Holder, one of the co-authors of the piece, stands bythe original reporting.
“Whether the administration wants to admit it or not, thesewere clearly throwing stars,” she said. “I felt like saying something elsewould be lying to readers when we should have told the news.”
Although the newspaper had already been printed at a nearbyfacility and was set for distribution throughout the school when Rewertsstopped it, the district paid for a reprint early the following week with therevised wording in place.
Sarah Barrick, the Tamarackadviser, said shesaw some concern on the school’s part for potential liability.
“There was some worry that people might read this and thinkthe school was allowing the students to make throwing stars in the class,” shesaid.
In hindsight, though, she thinks the administration handledthe case well.
“There was no censorship here,” Barrick said. “The storystill ran … and was sensitive to everybody involved.”
Though Goldstein said stories like the Tamarack’smay have no clear right or wrong side, he advised administrators to take a“common sense” approach when dealing with possible liability issues.
“Every time a school gets away with this type of censorship[where liability is a concern], the school is going to try it again,” he said.
“As a general matter, schools are getting more brazen aboutcensoring because of the widespread belief that they can get away with it,” hesaid. “Experience is teaching them that very blatant acts of censorship will beleft unchallenged. That mindset has to change.”
By Seth Zweifler, SPLC staff writer