Principal's censorship, prior review policies violate state law, student reporters allege

ARKANSAS — Arkansas is one of six anti-Hazelwood states—so-called because in 1995 the state legislature enacted a law protecting student free expression rights. But students who work for the newspaper at Fordyce High School are facing a censorship policy introduced by Principal Bobby Brown on Jan. 27 that the students claim violates the state law.

The Arkansas Student Publications Act allows students to freely express themselves in student publications, unless that expression is libelous or obscene. The act also requires school districts to adopt student publications policies that follow the act’s provisions.

Jayce Ables, co-editor of the school’s paper, the Hi-Times, said the policy is wrong.

“We have the right to write whatever we want [unless it falls under a limitation cited in the act],” Ables said.

Brown introduced the prior review policy after objecting to content in two editions of the Hi-Times: an article criticizing the school’s test schedule and a student’s quote that administrators thought was sexual in nature.

The quote included a female student’s plans for Valentine’s Day. She said she planned to cook for her boyfriend and watch some “love videos,” and added that “maybe a little later on something special will go down.”

Brown thought the newspaper adviser, Jennifer Baker, had failed to “properly supervise” and had caused “inaccuracies” and “distasteful content” to be printed in the newspaper, according to the policy that Brown required Baker to sign.

“[School] publications, as well as the content of student expression in school-sponsored activities, shall be subject to the editorial control of the District’s administration whose actions shall be reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns and adhere to the following limitations,” Brown’s policy states.

The policy also says the administration may prohibit content that is “ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased or prejudiced, vulgar or profane, or unsuitable for immature audiences,” which echoes language from the Hazelwood ruling, as opposed to the less restrictive Tinker standard that the Arkansas Student Publications Act was modeled after.

The student newspaper staff and Baker are appealing the policy to the Fordyce School Board.

Baker said other faculty members are against her decision to tell her students that she believes the policy should be repealed because it restricts their press freedoms.

“[The policy] has forced me not only to talk the talk, but walk the walk,” Baker said. “Because it’s one thing to say you believe in civil liberties [but] it’s another to actually have to fight for them and be willing to lose a job over them.”

Baker was not rehired for the 2005-2006 school year. She suspects this decision is the result of her stance against the policy.

Assistant principal David Little said the policy is modeled after one adopted by the Fordyce School Board. Little defended the school’s right to institute it.

“Whether or not [our] school policy is right or wrong, that’s not for us to decide as administrators,” Little said. “It is our job to ensure the policy is adhered to.”

Bruce Plopper, a journalism professor at the University of Arkansas, was involved in the creation of the Arkansas Student Publications Act in 1995. Plopper said there is “no question” that Brown’s policy violates the act.

The board has sought the advice of an attorney for the Arkansas School Boards Association, Kristin Gould, for assistance before reaching a decision.

The policy was temporarily lifted at the March 14 board meeting, pending a response from Gould. According to board member Tom Wynne, Gould is reviewing the policy, the Arkansas Student Publications Act and federal law to determine if the policy is legal. The next board meeting is May 9.

Baker and the co-editors said they will pursue litigation if the policy is not overturned.

In 1997, Plopper conducted a study with researcher Bill Downs to learn how many schools had instituted student publications policies by that time. Plopper said 25 percent of schools did not have policies and of those that did, many violated the act but were not called on their illegality.

“It takes someone to sue the school to get them to change [the policy],” Plopper said. “And people just don’t do that in [Arkansas].”

reports, Spring 2005