Why a high school principal wanted the school paper to be a public forum, after a year of prior review

MICHIGAN — Student journalists at East Lansing High School will now have editorial control of the school newspaper, Portrait, after last year’s policy of prior administrative review that students said led to censorship.

Earlier this month, principal Coby Fletcher, who had reviewed articles prior to publication for most of last year, recommended to the school board that the Portrait be classified as a public forum, which places editorial control in the hands of the student editors. The board unanimously approved his recommendation on Aug. 24.

“I think that by opting to make the newspaper a public forum, we give the students a more authentic experience,” Fletcher said in an interview. “There’s more weight on their shoulders as journalists. … When you give additional responsibility to students like that, they tend to step up.”

The 1988 Supreme Court decision Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier ruled that unless a high school newspaper had a clear “policy or practice” that established it as a public forum for student expression, school officials could censor material as long as there was a reasonable educational justification.

Fletcher said he wanted to make it clear “where the newspaper falls.” Portrait receives school funding, has a staff adviser and has some academic interest — all of which had made it a limited public forum, he told the board.

Fletcher said in his 10 years of public school administration, he had only requested prior administrative review once, and that was last year. He implemented the policy in late October, after the Portrait published an article that incorrectly claimed that teachers were not being paid during a teacher contract dispute. In a letter to the Board of Education, the 2014-15 Portrait editors wrote that Fletcher had said the prior review would be to check for factual accuracy and writing quality and that he would not censor content.

But the editors, Stefan Lindahl and Evan Hoopingarner, wrote that Fletcher began to remove words like “beer” or “sex” from articles and took so long to review articles that the paper’s publishing schedule was affected. They also wrote that Fletcher told Hoopingarner to change the tone of a critical editorial. The students revised the editorial and printed the issue, but according to the letter, Fletcher was angry that he had not approved the new editorial and later, refused to meet with the editors.

Fletcher said he “wouldn’t say” the complaints were “entirely accurate,” but he didn’t want to give specifics.

“I had two student editors who weren’t happy with prior administrative review,” he said. “I can certainly understand that.”

He said now that the newspaper is a public forum, he expects students to “make more informed decisions” and it is clearer where the responsibility lies.

“If the newspaper last year had been a public forum, I wouldn’t have really worried as much about what went on in the paper,” he said. But last year, when the paper was a limited public forum, the school was giving tacit approval to its content, he said.

“When that’s the case, I may police that a little bit more than I might have otherwise,” he said.

Now that the Portrait is a public forum, school officials will have to follow the Tinker standard and only intervene in editorial content if it can be reasonably forecast to cause a “substantial disruption.”

The 2015-16 co-editors of the paper, Sophie Steiner and Hudson Brett, could not be reached for comment. But they told the Lansing State Journal that they were happy about the decision.

“This is something specific that we’re very happy to have, because no one can interpret it differently,” Brett told the paper.

Hoopingarner, the former editor who also spoke at the Aug. 10 board meeting, said he was optimistic for the future of the Portrait.

“I am glad to be leaving the Portrait in the hands of new editors who seem to have a much better working relationship with the high school administrators than I did,” he told the board.

There is currently a campaign in Michigan — New Voices of Michigan — to lobby for a state law that will guarantee press freedom for student journalists in public schools and colleges. (The Student Press Law Center has been involved with the campaign.) Currently, there is no state-level legal protection for student journalists in the state.

On Twitter, New Voices of Michigan applauded Fletcher “for appreciating the importance of uncensored student voices.”

“I’ve been surprised by the number of people who have been surprised that a principal would recommend” giving the students more editorial control, Fletcher said.

“I think we have the impression that if we clamp down, we’re more likely to get what we want,” he said, but he said he thinks that when students are given “more freedom and more responsibility,” both parties will get more out of the experience.

Contact SPLC staff writer Madeline Will by email or at 202-833-4614.