High school administrators in Utah censored The Telegraph. So, The Telegram was born.

UTAH — Students at Herriman High School’s The Telegraph broke a story about a teacher at their school who was fired for allegedly inappropriately texting a female student. The school censored the story. Now, the young journalists are fighting back.

The staff of The Telegraph published the story on a new website dubbed The Telegram, beyond the reach of school administrators. They also wrote an open letter Wednesday asking the administration to restore the piece on The Telegraph website and allow print publication of the censored article. 

Their petition to “end the censorship of The Herriman High Telegraph” had 473 signatures as of Jan. 24.

This comes less than a week after news editor Conor Spahr published an article about a former teacher who had been fired for alleged misconduct. 

In publishing Spahr’s article, editor-in-chief Max Gordon and his staff may have broken the school’s prior review policy. There is disagreement about when prior review applies to The Telegraph. The students said they did not break it, because they met with and incorporated Vice Principal Richard Price’s edits, and that online stories don’t need to be approved. The administrators haven’t confirmed either if Price’s edits were included, or clarified the school’s prior review policy.

When The Telegraph’s staff found out their story was about to be covered by local news outlets, they published Spahr’s article. 

The next day, on Jan. 19, the Herriman administration instructed Sousa to shut down The Telegraph’s website. The site was later opened, but with Spahr’s article missing. The administration also blocked the print version of the story and took control of The Telegraph’s social media accounts.

“In order for The Telegraph to regain its power as a publication, we request that you immediately bring our website back online and repost our stories, give administrator access back to our student accounts, and promptly restore access to our social media accounts,” the open letter said.

The Telegraph’s staff also found alternative means of spreading the story. “We were all sort of brainstorming… we’ve been shut down, what is our next step?” Spahr said. Spahr and Gordon ended up buying a domain name for The Telegram, a website completely independent of the school, where they published Spahr’s article. The Telegram also has its own set of social media links.

Sousa, The Telegraph’s adviser, is unsure how to respond to the administration’s actions. “I thought that the article was incomplete, that it needed some changes,” Sousa acknowledged. 

He also noted the ethical and legal tightrope he walks as an adviser. 

“Prior review has always been the process here with the Jordan School District,” Sousa said. “I am conflicted. As a journalist myself, I am, of course, an advocate of free speech.” He added, “Right now we only have the laws in which we can operate.”

“I’m proud of my students for their tenacity, for the fearlessness to ask questions,” Sousa said. “Their fortitude is admirable to do what they think is right.”

Officials at the school declined to comment. 

The Jordan School District’s Office of Communications said in a written statement, “Jordan School District encourages thought-provoking, informative and accurate reporting of all stories in our school newspapers. It is the responsibility of students, school advisors and administrators to have every story meet these expectations. Again, we encourage students to participate in responsible journalism, sharing informative stories as part of their educational experience.”

Two teachers from Herriman High School, whom SPLC is not naming because they are not authorized to speak about the matter, said they support the journalism students. “The purpose of a school newspaper is to be a publication run by students. I think the school really missed the mark on this,” one teacher said. 

“We are an institution of learning, so I will always support our students seeking out the truth,” another teacher said. “Our newspaper staff is filled with thoughtful, careful writers. We don’t need to be afraid of what they say.” 

Mike Hiestand, Senior Legal Counsel at the SPLC, gave legal advice to the student journalists. 

“Sadly, the first response to this article was to censor it,” Hiestand said. “With the sitting President labeling the press the ‘enemy of the people,’ it seems like Herriman has chosen to double down on the new civics lessons of 2018.”

Gordon and Spahr said the incident will not change future reporting. “It’s encouraged the staff to follow and pursue any story that they want to, controversial or otherwise,”  Gordon said.

*Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Conor Spahr’s name. We also clarified that Herriman’s administrators and the students of The Telegraph disagree about whether the students broke the school’s prior review policy.

SPLC staff writer Gabriel Greschler can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6318. He is on Twitter @ggreschler.

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