ARKANSAS — An Arkansas school district drew national criticism after it apparently broke state law by censoring the paper and halting its publication. The district also announced it would implement prior review.
Springdale Public Schools backtracked and allowed online publication of the censored story and editorial, but significant obstacles remain unresolved.
The Student Press Law Center galvanized 27 national journalism organizations and First Amendment advocates to endorse its letter of concern admonishing the school district for their actions and offering to help write a publications policy that conforms with state law. The superintendent has yet to respond.
Har-Ber High School gave the students permission to re-publish the original article and accompanying editorial on Dec. 4. — after the Student Press Law Center had already posted the story and editorial on its website.
On Oct. 30, The Har-Ber Herald published an article and accompanying editorial criticizing the school district’s inconsistently enforced student transfer policy. The months long investigation found that six Har-Ber football players transferred to their rival school in the same district to play the game there, which is not allowed under district policy.
In documents the students obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the parents of all six players claimed the transfers were for academic reasons. But the students said in interviews it was actually to gain an advantage as football players.
One said transfering to Springdale High School was “better for my future to go out there and get college looks.”
Buzzfeed News, which broke the story, quoted SPLC’s Senior Legal Counsel, Mike Hiestand: “School officials at this point seem to me to have completely thrown up their hands and said, ‘We’re not going to listen to what the law says in our state, and we’re going to do what we want.’”
Shortly after being censored, The Herald staff contacted and has been working with the SPLC’s legal team.
The story and editorial ignited a firestorm in the community. “It cut pretty deep,” said Jack Williams, a member of The Herald staff who co-wrote the story with fellow students Molly Hendren and Matteo Campagnola.
A video posted by The Herald, and later the Arkansas Times, shows a transfer student’s parent burning football gear and yelling epithets about the Har-Ber High School football coach in the presence of the Springdale High School football coach.
Two days after The Har-Ber Herald story posted, Jared Cleveland, the deputy superintendent for the Springdale School District demanded that student media adviser Karla Sprague take down both articles from the website. On Nov. 26 Sprague received a letter from Springdale Superintendent Jim Rollins stating the article and editorial were “extremely divisive and disruptive.”
That sort of punishment and retaliation is the exact sort of thing New Voices legislation is designed to protect against. So that students can engage in responsible journalism that may make the school look bad but there is no fear of undue punishment.SPLC Staff Attorney Sommer Ingram Dean
On Nov. 27, the district announced it was changing the student media policy to require the paper submit all articles to administrators for approval before publishing, posting or distributing content. Publishing has been outright suspended until the school district finalizes a new student media policy.
“The fact that we felt as though we were doing a good job and it gets shut down because they didn’t like it — it’s disappointing,” The Herald’s Editor in Chief Halle Roberts told The Associated Press.
The law in Arkansas
Under the Arkansas Student Publications Act of 1995, in order to legally censor students, schools have to prove an act of free speech is either libelous or slanderous, obscene for minors, an invasion of privacy or incites illegal or violent actions.
The accuracy of the story has not been not been challenged.
Arkansas state law uses the same “material and substantial disruption” standard established by the Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines (1969). SPLC staff attorney Sommer Ingram Dean said courts have been clear that under the standard, a story has to be more than controversial to be censored by a public school — it must either be incredibly disruptive, such as an act of violence, or it must infringe on the rights of others.
School officials at this point seem to me to have completely thrown up their hands and said, “We’re not going to listen to what the law says in our state, and we’re going to do what we want.”SPLC Senior Legal Counsel Mike Hiestand
“It’s not sufficient just to say that some students, parents or members of the community became upset by the coverage,” Dean said. “And here the only disruption seems to be stemmed from the censorship of this article and editorial.”
Adviser at risk
On Nov. 27, Har-Ber High School Principal Paul Griep sent a memo to Sprague threatening that if she didn’t adhere to the new prior review policy it would, “result in disciplinary action, up to, and including recommendation for termination of your employment.” The Arkansas Times posted the full memo online.
Rollins and Griep both declined to comment, deferring to the district’s communication director, Rick Schaeffer, who said only that there is an ongoing and thorough review of the situation.
Williams said none of the school or district administrators have contacted the students directly about the censorship of their paper. Instead, all communication goes through Sprague.
“I am very worried they will try to terminate her job position,” Williams said.
“Some states have a clause in the law that protects against adviser retaliation, unfortunately Arkansas is not one of those states,” Dean said. “And in this situation, according to the students what we are really seeing is that the administration is really pressuring the adviser.”
A partial win, but problems remain
On Dec. 4, the school district released a statement saying, “After continued consideration of the legal landscape, the Springdale School District has concluded that the Har-Ber Herald articles may be reposted. This matter is complex, challenging and has merited thorough review. The social and emotional well-being of all students has been and continues to be a priority of the district.”
NPR affiliate KUAF reported that Schaeffer stated the paper was never suspended, a claim that contradicts the memo Griep sent to Sprague.
The “legal landscape” Schaeffer references is the 1995 law, which makes Arkansas one of 14 states with “New Voices” legal protections for student journalists. New Voices is a nonpartisan, grassroots, student-powered movement to give student journalists protection from censorship.
New Voices Timeline:
“The actions that the school district has taken are problematic under the First Amendment and especially egregious given that Arkansas is a New Voices state,” Dean said.
Williams’ family is concerned about him. “They were afraid that since the administration was already breaking their own rules, they would find a reason to expel me,” Williams said.
“The school would not be within their rights to punish these students based on what, as far as we know, is a responsibly reported newsworthy story,” Dean said. “That sort of punishment and retaliation is the exact sort of thing New Voices legislation is designed to protect against. So that students can engage in responsible journalism that may make the school look bad but there is no fear of undue punishment.”
Taking this case to court is not out of the question, Williams said, “I am willing to go as far as it needs to go.”
The most important thing, for Williams and the rest of the staff, is to protect the paper and their adviser. Roberts told Buzzfeed News that the next print edition is ready to be published, despite the fact that the paper is suspended. The edition contains a spread about the censorship.
Multiple news organizations have covered The Herald’s censorship, including:
- Buzzfeed News, which broke the story
- The Associated Press
- The Chicago Tribune
- National Public Radio
- Fox News
- The Hill
- The Poynter Institute
- The Arkansas Times
- The Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette
- The Daily Collegian
- The Herald Net
The staff of The Herald are waiting to see if the media attention will help their cause.
Williams, who hopes to one day be the editor in chief of The Herald and pursue a career in journalism, said at the end of the day this is a learning experience, and he hopes there is positive change on the horizon.
“I’m kind of viewing it as ‘what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,’” Williams said.
SPLC reporter Madison Dudley can be reached at email@example.com or at 202-974-6318. Follow her on Twitter at @MadisonDudley18
Want more stories like this? The Student Press Law Center is a legal and educational nonprofit defending the rights of student journalists. Sign up for our free occasional News Roundup.