This year’s alleged censoring of the school newspaper at Prosper High School in North Texas was the latest in a series of episodes that has First Amendment advocates hopeful for legislative change.
In May, Prosper High School Principal John Burdett terminated the contract of school newspaper advisor Lori Oglesbee-Petter, who has advised student papers for over three decades, after several incidents in which Burdett forced the Eagle Nation Online to remove content.
Burdett, who came to the district in March 2017, began to review the news content in February, vetting it for material that was controversial or ran counter to “community norms.” He sought content that was “uplifting.”
Burdett did not respond to an email seeking an interview.
The Student Press Law Center, or SPLC, is hopeful the incident will encourage a state lawmaker to introduce a measure that has had mixed success around the U.S.
“It’s just a matter of figuring out if there is a champion in the legislature who has the ability to get anything done,” Frank LoMonte, a senior law fellow at the Student Press Law Center said in an email. “I expect that a lot of us will start sharply focusing on that in the weeks to come, because the Prosper situation is so outrageous that it’s the poster-child case that could fuel reform.”
State Sen. José Rodriguez, D-El Paso, last session introduced SB 2225, a measure that would give student journalists more latitude in publishing probing stories.
The bill, which arrived as the session wound down, went nowhere.
“Censoring students for reasons unrelated to libel or other provisions allowed by the Supreme Court under Hazelwood is unacceptable,” Rodriguez said in a statement. “We recently saw that happen in Texas in Prosper. This is why we need bills like SB 2225, the Student Press Freedom bill, which I filed last session, and plan to again in the upcoming session.”
Fourteen states have laws protecting high school journalists, including Vermont, California, Rhode Island, Colorado and Nevada. The bills can take a long time to gain acceptance from lawmakers. High schoolers can’t vote, and have little lobbying heft.
An anti-censorship measure approved in March in Washington state had been debated since 1992. The main opposition came from school administrator associations.
Administrative interference in the editorial content of high school newspapers has become more common in recent years, representing half of the 2,000 calls the SPLC receives annually, said Mike Hiestand, legal counsel for the SPLC.
“Some of the things these administrators are learning in principal school about what the First Amendment requires is off target,” Hiestand said.
“We could do a better job of reminding educators what education is about and teaching our next generation what a free press is.” The number one reason behind an attempt to censor content, he said, is “far and away the fear of a bad image.”
As with professional journalists, students and their newspaper advisors have to ensure the copy is accurate and verifiable. The 1988 Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, is the case most relied upon in debates over alleged censorship.
The case holds that high school newspapers do not have the same First Amendment protections as others, although actions taken against them must have reasonable educational grounds.
Texas has had numerous incidents of administrative action against high school news groups. Stories on pregnancy, drug use, and fighting have all been contested, often pulled, by administrators.
At issue in Prosper was an image the district sought to project.
“If you’re trying to defend a story that may be a little vulgar or have tones of sexual innuendo, that’s one thing,” Oglesbee-Petter said. “That’s not what we’re talking about here. This is about stories that set out to improve the schools.”
She said a speech protection bill would be “protection against someone who is not familiar with the role of the press or Constitutional rights. It’s not to print lewd content and it still needs to have responsibility.”
Any measure would have to be constructed to ensure the wording correctly addresses potential violations of the First Amendment and doesn’t get diluted in the process, said Jim Hemphill, an Austin-based First Amendment lawyer.
“Whenever you have a legislative body considering something, it goes through committees and rewrites and there are lots of people involved,” Hemphill said. “So you need to be careful you don’t end up with something more restrictive.”
The SPLC on Thursday sent a letter to Prosper ISD Superintendent Drew Watkins, asking that he take steps to ensure the district complies with Constitutional requirements regarding free speech.
“School administrators must remove themselves from reviewing student journalism that involves the image or reputation of the school, as the administration faces an ethical conflict in serving as both the subject of news coverage and its editor,” the letter said.
It was signed by 17 news groups, including the American Society of News Editors, the Society for Professional Journalists and the Freedom of the Press Foundation.
The district declined to comment.
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].