VERMONT — Student journalists at Burlington High School used the state’s New Voices law to successfully fight back against censorship and prevent the reinstatement of a prior review policy.
On Sept. 10, the BHS Register was the first to report about an investigation by the Vermont Agency of Education focused on the school’s director of guidance, Mario Macias.
BHS Register Editors Nataleigh Noble, Halle Newman, Jenna Peterson, and Julia Shannon-Grillo filed a public records request to the Vermont Agency of Education and collaborated on a story written by Shannon-Grillo.
The day after the story was published online, the school’s interim principal, Noel Green, ordered the article to be taken down. The BHS Register staff contacted the Student Press Law Center to see if there was a legal way to protest the principal’s action given state law.
The students decided to keep links to their story up on social media that redirected readers to a page that said: “This article has been censored by Burlington High School administration.”
Word about the censorship quickly spread. Teachers and members of the community publicly supported the right for the article to be published and sided with the BHS Register, according to the editors.
News outlets across the state reported on the censorship and the charges against Macias. National news organizations like the Associated Press, Fox News and US News and World Report all covered the censorship of the BHS Register between Sept. 11 and Sept. 15.
On Sept. 13, the Vermont Press Association and the New England First Amendment Coalition released a joint statement condemning Green’s “ill-advised demand” to remove the article.
The VPA and NEFAC demanded that:
- The article be re-published on the BHS Register website.
- The Burlington School District and school administrators agree in writing to follow the New Voices legislation.
- The Burlington School District agree to work with the VPA to sponsor First Amendment training for northwestern Vermont school districts.
- The Burlington School District and the Burlington High School administration write a formal apology to the staff of the BHS Register.
That same day, Green reversed his decision to remove the story.
Macias was officially placed on administrative leave by the Burlington School District on Sept. 14.
Round 2: Prior Review
A day after the students were able to put their story back online, they learned Green had changed the school’s student press policy, bringing back administrative prior review.
Green emailed BHS Register adviser Beth Falko Casey on Sept. 14 saying BHS would revert back to a 2016-2017 school policy that required students to submit every article to administrators “48 hours before publication” for prior review.
The school had gotten rid of its prior review policy after Vermont passed a New Voices law in 2017. New Voices is a student-powered bipartisan movement launched by the SPLC to give student journalists protection from censorship. Fourteen states have passed New Voices legislation.
In 2017, BHS students and BHS Register staff members testified to Vermont legislators in favor of New Voices. In their testimonies, BHS students referenced a history of censorship at the school and specifically mentioned the prior review policy.
By ordering the removal of the article in the first place, the students claimed Green violated the Vermont New Voices law, which states there should be no attempts to censor, control or remove content from student press.
A prior review policy is not direct violation of the law, but if Green or other administrators had used it to edit or prevent publication of an article, it would have been..
Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel for the Student Press Law Center, said keeping the prior review policy would have been a “step backwards” in the fight against student censorship. “Every major journalism group in the country say[s] that prior review is not the way to do journalism,” Hiestand said.
On Sept. 15 a press release from the Burlington School District announced the reversal of Green’s day-long policy: “All previously practiced or adopted guidelines regarding publications in the BHS Register are no longer in effect” and student press policy will be consistent with the “provisions of the New Voices law.”
“The entire situation at BHS shows how important the New Voices legislation is,” said Hadar Harris, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. “Passing the law is not the end of the story.”
The BHS Register was one of the first student publications in Vermont to use the new law to push back against censorship by its school. Although the law was already in effect, many school administrators may not have known about it before BHS’s story was widely publicized.
Green has not responded to multiple requests for an interview. As of Sept. 17, Green had not met with or contacted the BHS Register staff directly — all communication has gone through the paper’s faculty adviser, Fialko-Casey.
Shannon-Grillo hopes if Green has a future concern about the BHS Register, he will approach the students directly so there can be a discussion.
Newman and Shannon-Grillo feel positive about the rest of the school year. “We know how to defend our rights,” Newman said.
Noble and Newman are both seniors and this experiences has made them want, more than ever, to look at colleges with good student newspapers and journalism programs. “I’ve never learned so much,” Noble said.
“We never expected this to happen,” Newman said, “we never thought it would be to the scale that it has been.”