New, restrictive publications policy hits journalists at a Virginia high school who were already being censored

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VIRGINIA — Journalism students already dealing with censorship by administrators at Millbrook High School in Winchester, Virginia, now face another barrier to reporting after the passage of a new prior review policy for student publications. 

The Frederick County School Board approved the new policy during its Aug. 20 meeting. Under the policy, the school’s principal must approve all publications before they are published. It also says that “publications are not intended to provide a public forum for students or the general public.”

Student Press Law Center Staff Attorney Sommer Ingram Dean said the inclusion of this line is important for legal reasons.

“A policy specifying that a student publication is not a public forum essentially takes decision making power out of the hands of the students when it comes to determining the content of the publication,” she said. “Non-public forums weaken First Amendment protection for student journalists, paving the way for school officials to censor content for any number of vague and broad reasons they can come up with.”

Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision, gave public high school officials greater authority to censor some school-sponsored student publications if they choose to do so. But the ruling doesn’t apply to publications that are “public forums for student expression.”

Frederick County has two student publications, according to the Winchester Star. Millbrook’s student newspaper, BlueXpress, and Frederick County Middle School’s The Trojan Times. There are two other high schools in the district — James Wood and Sherando High Schools — but neither has a student publication.

The new policy probably won’t change much for student journalists at Millbrook, said Christian Hellwig, a senior and co-editor of BlueXpress. The newspaper was already censored multiple times last year and the staff has dwindled from about 30 students a year ago to just 10 this fall.

“Last year we had already been hit with some of the [policy] before it actually happened,” he said. “We had our principal take down pictures of herself that we used for our online newspaper.” 

The SPLC reached out to Millbrook principal Joanne Altendorf for comment and was referred to a school board spokesman, who told the SPLC, “we’re not interested in engaging in an interview.”

Azrael Stavely, also a senior at Millbrook, had two pieces — an article about the Jan. 19 Women’s March and an editorial about the sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — censored by administrators last year. Stavely first gave an interview to the Winchester Star in August about her troubles with getting stories published.

“The one story that really discouraged me was the Women’s March, where there was an event in our town, [it was] student-organized,” she said. “I interviewed a bunch of students at a surrounding school and at my school, and [administrators] told me I couldn’t publish it just because it might be deemed as controversial and they wanted me to get a Republican standpoint for it.”

We fear that we’re going to take one step in the wrong direction and it’s going to get our entire department shut down for the rest of the year

Stavely said she didn’t interview the head of the Young Republicans club at Millbrook because she wasn’t at the event. She did interview the president of the Young Democrats because the club helped organize it. Regardless, Stavely didn’t see a need to make the story political. 

“I didn’t ask if any of the students were Republican or Democrat,” she said. “It was mainly about students marching for women in other countries who don’t even have a right to education.”

Because of the censorship, Stavely did not rejoin the staff for the 2019-2020 school year.

Hellwig said this year, writers and photographers are becoming frustrated and not doing any of the hard-hitting journalism they want to do.

“All of our articles are fluff pieces,” he said, “they’re all on ‘meet the new teacher’ or something like that, nothing that’s really impactful about our school.”

The newspaper has plenty of ideas, but Hellwig fears overstepping the line. 

“We want to start up a news show again, because we used to have one, and we just haven’t been able to, because we fear that we’re going to take one step in the wrong direction and it’s going to get our entire department shut down for the rest of the year, and maybe even next year for the kids that are younger than me,” he said.

On Sept. 27, Stavely organized a student walkout to bring attention to climate change, similar to the worldwide walkouts led by 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg the week before. Hellwig said photographers covered the event and he doubts those pictures will be censored, but said, “I do believe an article would have been censored, heavily.”

All of our articles are fluff pieces

The two seniors still remain passionate about journalism. During the next Virginia General Assembly session in early 2020, Stavely said she’ll be testifying in support of a New Voices bill, which would grant student journalists essentially the same freedoms as any other journalist.

Hellwig has worked at BlueXpress the maximum number of years a student is allowed — when others jumped ship over censorship frustrations, he stayed on board. 

“I like being able to show people what’s going on, not my opinion on things, but to show people the facts of what has happened with something,” he said.

If the paper were given a chance to do more intensive reporting, Hellwig said he’s confident in the staff’s ability to do it well.

“I think we’d be able to do some great work,” he said. “I know that we’d all like to cover some of the injustices that happen in our school with our administration.”

He credited the visual team especially for the potential they have, saying they were the staff’s strongest department. Photographers actually did have some short-lived freedoms at one point.

“Last year in the beginning half of the year, we were actually able to go take pictures and shoot videos in the school during school hours as long as it was not for something that wasn’t Millbrook,” he said. “But that got taken away from us halfway through last year.”

When Altendorf halted Stavely’s editorial on Kavanaugh, the principal told her it was because she might be harassed by other students.

Maybe instead of silencing us, we should teach other students how to behave when other people have disagreeing opinions

“My principal told our editor at the time that I could not publish it because she was scared for my safety,” Stavely said. “She was scared that I would be ambushed or something for voicing my opinion. It didn’t make sense to me. I was not scared of being harrassed.”

Stavely said that instead of stopping her from speaking her mind, administrators should stress to students the importance of free speech.

“I just don’t think that voicing your opinion should be something that you get harassed over at all,” she said. “I think that she and the school board should know that and maybe instead of silencing us, we should teach other students how to behave when other people have disagreeing opinions.”

Hellwig agreed that potential harassment wasn’t a valid reason to censor a story.

“I don’t really care about a kid harassing me. One kid in my high school harassing me because I covered something that they don’t like isn’t anything to me,” he said. “I also don’t think any kid is going to harass someone in our school because of that.”

SPLC reporter Joe Severino can be reached by email at or by calling 202-974-6318. Follow him on Twitter at @jj_severino

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