Illinois administrators halt student newspaper's plans for school board candidate forum

ILLINOIS — An Illinois high school student newspaper staff has been told it cannot host a school board candidate forum online, writing in an editorial that administrators told them they fear “too many things could go wrong.”

In an editorial published Tuesday titled, “Censored?”, The Clarion staff writes that their adviser, who had emailed the candidates an invitation to participate, “was told to stop developing the event” by Superintendent Kevin Skinkis. Skinkis said the students should have sent the invitation themselves, according to the editorial.

The forum, originally planned for Wednesday, was to be conducted using CoveritLive. All six candidates were invited, and staff planned to ask questions.

In an interview, Editor-in-Chief Katie Maxwell said the staff felt adviser Daniel Mancoff’s actions were appropriate to his role. After Mancoff’s meeting with Skinkis, Maxwell said she took over communication with the candidates and let them know the forum had been postponed.

In a March 14 meeting with Skinkis and Riverside Brookfield High School Principal Pam Bylsma, the paper’s editors were given several reasons for why they couldn’t host the forum, Maxwell said. Among the reasons were the existence of an ongoing “lawsuit alleging that school property was used to promote the 2010 education referendum,” and the administration’s belief that the forum might appear to be “electioneering because students would use a school owned web site that is supervised by a staff member who is supervised by the administration to host the forum, making the newspaper a resource of the school,” according to the editorial.

Prior to the meeting, Clarion staff members consulted Student Press Law Center Director Frank LoMonte, and wrote a letter outlining their plans for the forum and citing their First Amendment protection from censorship.

The letter stated that the “forum is an entirely student-directed project” and that “no school funding is being used…no school facilities are involved.” The staff offered to let Skinkis to review their questions beforehand and promised to put a disclaimer on the forum website.

Administrators were not swayed, Maxwell said.

In an interview, Skinkis said the information in the editorial “is accurate.” His biggest concern with the forum, he said, was the current lawsuit against the school.

“We’re currently in a lawsuit, there’s a lot of gray area where things could go wrong and we could be considered liable for similar actions so there’s too much to risk,” Skinkis said.

Skinkis said the newspaper has his support and is “obviously … not censored.”

He said he told the students they are free to write editorials and endorse candidates if they sign their name to their work, and that they can still report responsibly on the elections.

“We just weren’t going to sponsor an actual activity where candidates would be using school resources or [the] school newspaper as a forum,” Skinkis said.

Maxwell said that she feels “it’s unfortunate that the lawsuit did affect our ability to appropriately cover the local news because this election is important to the community,” and that she does feel that her staff was censored.

“From my perspective, the fact that we as a newspaper believe that it was our First Amendment right to host this forum, and we were prevented from doing that by our administration … that, in my opinion, is censorship,” Maxwell said.

While the staff feels there is not enough time to salvage the forum at this point, Maxwell said they wrote the editorial in hopes it would pave the way for future newspaper students to have such a forum.

“Hopefully this can help move the discussion forward in a positive way so that the administration and the Clarion can come to a happy medium,” Maxwell said.

Bylsma could not be reached for comment.

By Sara Tirrito, SPLC staff writer. Contact Tirrito by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 124.