FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Nov. 23, 2019
Contact: Diana Mitsu Klos, director of engagement (202) 728-7267/ firstname.lastname@example.org
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Students from Burlington, Vermont who broke a story about alleged inappropriate behavior by a faculty member and triumphed over both censorship and prior review are being honored with the “Courage in Student Journalism Award.”
“We fought back on a policy that restricted the rights of student journalism, keeping in mind that the outcome of our battle would set a precedent for the future journalists of Burlington,” Julia Shannon-Grillo and Jenna Peterson, Co-Editors-in-Chief of The BHS Register, said in a brief statement this week.
“As a result, we were able to help write a new policy that allows us to be a reliable news source for the community and protects the freedom of the student press.”
The BHS Register at Burlington High School broke the news of an investigation by the Vermont Agency of Education into six counts of alleged unprofessional conduct by the school’s director of guidance.
To confirm details, the young journalists filed a public records request with the state agency. The day after the story was published online in September 2018, the school’s then-interim principal ordered it to be taken down.
The BHS Register staff contacted the Student Press Law Center for legal guidance on how to respond to the administrator’s action in light of a new state law that protects the basic First Amendment rights of student journalists.
Vermont passed a “New Voices” law in 2017. At the time, BHS Register staffers testified before Vermont legislators to urge its passage.
New Voices is a student-powered nonpartisan movement initiated by the Student Press Law Center to protect the First Amendment rights of student journalists. To date, 14 states have passed New Voices legislation.
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.”
Outrage over the censorship spread. Many teachers, parents and community residents publicly supported the right for the story to be published and multiple local and national news organizations covered the incident.
Along with assistance from the Student Press Law Center, The BHS Register also received steadfast support from the Vermont Press Association and the New England First Amendment Coalition. The latter two groups released a statement condemning the censorship.
A day after the students were able to put their story back online, the interim principal reinstated a policy demanding students to submit every article to administrators “48 hours before publication” for prior review.
While a prior review policy is not a direct violation of the law, if an administrator uses the policy to edit or prevent publication of an article, it would be. Burlington High School had previously rescinded its prior review policy after “New Voices” became law in 2017.
BHS Register students and their advocates spoke before the Burlington school board, urging that the prior review again be rescinded. It soon was.
“Passage of a New Voices law is a momentous leap, but it’s also just the beginning,” said Hadar Harris, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. “Informing the entire education community about the benefits of the law, and holding administrators to account to abide by it provides the traction to ensure a healthier environment for student journalism to thrive.”
Shannon-Grillo traveled to Washington, D.C., to receive the award on behalf of The BHS Register. A plaque and check for $1,000 was presented at the National High School Journalism Convention, which drew 6,200 attendees.
The award is jointly sponsored by the Student Press Law Center, the Center for Scholastic Journalism (CSJ) at Kent State University and the National Scholastic Press Association. The CSJ funds the $1,000 award to The BHS Register.The Student Press Law Center (splc.org, @splc) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit working at the intersection of law, journalism and education to promote, support and champion the rights of student journalists and their advisers at the high school and college levels. The SPLC provides information, training and legal assistance at no charge to student journalists and the educators who work with them.