ILLINOIS — A school district censored an article published in a high school newspaper, then locked away the print issues for nearly 24 hours, which students say violated their rights as journalists.
The Central Times is the student newspaper at Naperville Central High School in a western suburb of Chicago. The paper’s Editor-in-Chief Vivian Zhao and Profiles Editor Amisha Sethi intended to report multiple eyewitness accounts of a special needs student causing constant classroom disruptions, including punching a teacher in the head, resulting in a concussion.
Zhao said these disruptions started occurring in September, but the severity began to increase in early October.
She said the Central Times editorial board, comprised of 15 students, “decided to pursue this story about disruptions in the learning environment,” and how the school district would handle these incidents in the future. She said the student himself would not be named or be the focal point of the story.
But nearly a quarter of the article was censored pre-publication by the school’s principal, Bill Wiesbrook. The school district claimed the portions that were censored — eyewitness accounts of the disruptive behavior from students and faculty — invaded the student’s privacy and should be withheld.
The Central Times contacted the Student Press Law Center’s legal hotline for advice on how to navigate the censorship.
Mike Hiestand, SPLC’s senior legal counsel, said the key defense to invasion of privacy claims under New Voices Law is newsworthiness.
“If something is newsworthy, it cannot support an invasion of privacy claim,” he said. “Here, the student’s acts are widely known and being talked about. Parents are contacting the school. Some of [the student’s] acts constitute potential crimes, which would automatically take them out of the privacy column.”
The censored version of the article ran front-page in the Central Times Oct. 29 print issue. It explained that state law requires schools to place special needs students in general classroom settings, and the research that supports the law.
In that same issue, the Central Times ran a front-page editorial calling out the district for censoring them. They also covered the censored paragraphs with black bars like in government document redactions.
‘How do we not write about this’
Keith Carlson has been the Central Times’ faculty adviser for 13 years. He was hired after the previous adviser, Linda Kane, who led the newspaper to 10 national Pacemaker Awards over 19 years, was fired in 2008 after students ran an article advocating for marijuana use.
The principal that fired Kane was removed as principal that same year, 2008, after plagiarizing a former student’s speech. Wiesbrook was named Naperville Central’s principal the same year Carlson began his tenure as adviser.
Aside from this recent incident, Carlson said Wiesbrook has always been understanding and supportive of the Central Times.
In a phone interview, Wiesbrook said he would not comment on the censored material out of respect for the student’s family.
During a Times brainstorming session in September, Carlson said students began discussing the disruptions and how they might cover it.
“We started hearing stories about property damage,” he said, “but we never confirmed an exact amount.” Carlson said the paper had eyewitnesses who saw the student throw computer equipment.
What kind of newspaper are we at this point if we don’t figure out a way to cover this story?
Carlson said it soon became an everyday occurrence that students would show up late to his classes because of disruptions happening in the hallway.
“I started having kids coming late to class and saying ‘sorry I’m late, they shut down the hallway,’” because teachers were barricading the hallway to contain the disruptions.
The newspaper knew the story would be a challenging one. Covering the disruptive actions of a special needs student who may not have had control over himself, was daunting enough, but it also seemed inevitable they would get pushback from the district. So for the time being, they pumped the brakes on it.
That changed in October, when Zhao said the severity of the incidents began increasing. By that month’s brainstorming session, Carlson said the newspaper had eyewitness accounts of the student grabbing a teacher’s hair, punching her in the face and giving her a concussion.
“The kids sat back down and said ‘okay, how do we not write about this at this point?’ Property damage, disruption to the learning environment, now we’ve got people being hit. What kind of newspaper are we at this point if we don’t figure out a way to cover this story?” Carlson said. “They ultimately decided ‘now we have to write about it.’”
During the course of her reporting, Zhao said it was tough trying to get any kind of comment from Naperville Community Unit School District 203. Word of the incidents started making its way around the community, so she wanted to ask district officials how they planned to address the problem.
“It wasn’t just that the learning environment was getting disrupted, but I think at one point there was a concern by parents that there were rumors going around, and we also wanted to clarify any rumors because there hadn’t been any formal communication between the district and the parents at that point,” she said.
“What we wanted to find out was how the district was responding to the incidents and specifically and how in general cases they would respond,” she added, “but what they said was that this was an invasion of privacy, so they requested prior review of the article.”
Sinikka Mondini, executive director of communications for Naperville School District, said the district stands by its argument that the article invaded the student’s privacy, but declined to comment further.
Mondini said she forwarded other district officials, including the superintendent, a request for comment, but none responded to the SPLC for an interview.
“In the case of the Central Times article, District administration felt parts of their article violated student privacy rights and this is considered an exception in that Illinois New Voices Act under section 15, item 2,” Mondini wrote in an email.
“District administration is not interested in censoring student newspapers,” she added. “We take great pride in our student papers and the accolades these papers receive for their fine reporting. However, it is our duty to insure that all students’ rights are protected and sometimes that means removing specifics that would violate those rights.”
In September, Carlson said he received a text from Wiesbrook, asking him if the students planned to write an article on these incidents. At the time, the answer was no.
When the students did begin pursuing the story in October, Carlson said as a courtesy he went to the principal’s office and told him that plans have changed.
“That’s what put it on his radar,” Carlson said. “That’s not something that I always do, we don’t usually clear topics for anything we write with administration.”
Our principal at the time compared publishing the uncensored article to vaping in his face
Carlson said the material Wiesbrook censored was simply eyewitness accounts about the disruptions — one student told the paper they were rerouted in the hallway, a teacher said the student walked in the choir room and started throwing chairs, another student said they got hit by clothing the student removed from himself.
“We were told there could be no reference to the students specifically, that we could not run any eyewitness accounts of things that happened to them, and originally they said we’re not allowed to use the phrase ‘disruption to the learning environment,’” Carlson said.
Meetings with the district and New Voices law
In 2016, Illinois passed the Speech Rights of Student Journalists Act, which limits schools’ ability to censor student expression. SPLC advocates for New Voices bills, including the one that passed in Illinois, as part of a larger movement to support student press freedom.
The district and the administration should not have a say in ethical matters. That’s for the Central Times to decide
The law reverses some of the language written in the landmark 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier Supreme Court decision, where the Court ruled that student newspapers are not a forum for public expression and a school administrator can censor material they deem inappropriate under specific circumstances.
Under this New Voices law, there are only four instances in which a school administrator can use prior restraint of student expression; if the material:
- Is libelous, slanderous or obscene
- Constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy
- Violates federal or state law
- Incites students to commit an unlawful act, to violate policies of the school district, or to materially and substantially disrupts the orderly operation of the school.
Naperville School District claims their censorship of the Central Times article was legal because the material was an unwarranted invasion of privacy.
Zhao, however, believed the original story didn’t fall under this category.
“Our understanding was under New Voices we’re legally covered, and the article we’re writing isn’t one of the four exceptions listed,” she said. “What was left was ethical considerations, and our belief is that all ethical considerations should be primarily inside of the newsroom, and the district and the administration should not have a say in ethical matters. That’s for the Central Times to decide.”
Carlson said he believes the district’s counsel did not know about the New Voices law.
“There was a day when the principal sat me down during a period that I had off and showed me the communication from a district lawyer who basically said the kids at Central Times cannot write about this, and they basically sent Bill the Hazelwood case to explain to him that was his justification,” he said.
Carlson said he told Wiesbrook about New Voices and had the law emailed to the district’s counsel. Soon after, a meeting was arranged between Carlson, Wiesbrook and the district.
Calrson said he told Wiesbrook that if the meeting was about the story, Zhao should also be in the room. Zhao said she also asked to attend, but both were told no.
“I think the majority of the meeting was really an attempt for them to convince me why this story was wrong and we couldn’t do it,” Carlson said.
He said he was questioned just three or four times about the content of story, to which he replied that content questions were for the students, not him.
“I was worried that they were putting me out front,” he said.
For the Oct. 29 print issue, the Central Times deadline was Wednesday, Oct. 23. Zhao said the paper gave Wiesbrook the story on the day of deadline because the district waited until the last second to say they did not want to comment.
“We were planning to send him it a little bit earlier — it was very hard to get in touch with the district,” she said. “We were waiting for district’s interview up until then because we didn’t want to send the story to him without getting the district’s interview because that’s half of the story.”
The version they gave Wiesbrook did not include the content the district deemed an invasion of privacy. Zhao said they did this to avoid potential discipline and to protect Carlson from retaliatory actions by the district.
“They said that if our adviser Mr. Carlson didn’t comply, or the editorial board, if either of us didn’t comply, there would be consequences,” Zhao said. “I think our principal at the time compared publishing the uncensored article to vaping in his face.”
Asked if he felt that his role as adviser was threatened during the process, Carlson said yes.
“I did … the number one thing I knew for sure when I walked out of that meeting Vivian that couldn’t attend, was that there was a huge disconnect between how I understand what my job responsibilities are as an adviser and what the kids’ rights are journalists; there’s a huge disparity between my understanding of that and the district’s administration’s understanding of that,” he said.
“Bill is sort of in the middle. I think he understands my job more than [district officials] do, but he still made the decision that we were wrong on this particular story,” he added.
He said in that same meeting, a district administrator told him about possible consequences for him as adviser, including termination, if the uncensored version ran; the district also mentioned potential disciplinary action toward the student journalists.
The night before the print issues arrived, Carlson said Wiesbrook called him and asked what time the papers would arrive in the morning. Wiesbrook told him the district wanted to take one last look at the story, so he asked if he could take a copy over to the superintendent when the papers arrived at the newspaper’s office.
Carlson said Wiesbrook told him the papers could go out after they get approval. However, Carlson told him to just have the papers rerouted to the principal’s office.
“I told the principal, I said if those papers are sitting in the [newspaper] office and the kids ask to distribute them, I am not legally able to restrict them from doing so,” Carlson said.
So when the papers did arrive at the school, they were stashed in the principal’s office, presumably just until the superintendent looked it over. The district office is just across the parking lot from Naperville Central.
We didn’t really know if we’d get to distribute the papers
The district was unaware, Zhao said, that the staff published the editorial directly next to the news story. She said the paper made this decision, along with blacking out the censored paragraphs, so readers could get a visual representation of how much of the story was censored.
The Central Times wasn’t able to distribute the papers until after fourth period the next day.
“They were locked in there for about 24 hours,” Zhao said. “So we didn’t really know if we’d get to distribute the papers; there wasn’t a lot of contact between the district and the staff.”
“We were told by the end of the school day we were going to know what was going on; that didn’t happen,” Carlson said. “All that evening we waited to hear; we didn’t hear anything. The next morning we were bugging the principal, ‘what’s going on?’”
The papers were eventually distributed the following day with no further problems. Carlson said the district has had no communication with the Central Times since.
Journalism at Naperville Central
Both Zhao and Carlson said the Naperville Central’s administration, aside from this incident, is usually supportive of the Central Times. Zhao said Wiesbrook “is very willing to interview with us” when he’s asked to, and Carlson said the principal is very open to receiving criticism.
… the district did not really understand what our rights are as journalists
But both also believe there is a disconnect between the paper and the district.
“We felt that the staff was not as involved in the discussion among the district and the Central Times,” Zhao said. “It was mainly our adviser that was in the discussion, and he also felt that as a student-run newspaper, it should be the students that have the voice to talk about decisions of the newspaper.”
“But we also thought that the district did not really understand what our rights are as journalists,” she added. “I think that was really what prompted the editorial, because under the New Voices Act we were protected; but I do not think that the district seems to understand that.”
Zhao said district administrators also don’t understand the role the Central Times has in the community.
“I feel like the student journalism at our school right now, it is a way for students and families to know about what’s happening in the district in an unbiased manner,” Zhao said.
She hopes that censorship will be avoided going forward, and that journalistic decisions should be made solely by the student journalists.
“I think that if you look at generally the relationship between the district and the Central Times, it’s generally positive,” she said. “But I hope that in situations like these, where there might be a significant amount of disagreement between the district and the Central Times, they still respect our right to decide whether or not we should publish an article so long that it is legal for us to do so and that they also trust that we are able to do that.”
*Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the names of Bill Wiesbrook and Amisha Sethi, both were corrected.
Did we miss any? Send internship information to SPLC reporter Joe Severino by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 202-974-6318. Follow him on Twitter at @jj_severino
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