Students appeal to school board after superintendent asks to prior review publication

MINNESOTA -- Students at Faribault High School in Faribault, Minn., are appealing to their school board after the superintendent shut down the student newspaper Monday.

The dispute arose after student editors of the Echo worked with the local newspaper, Faribault Daily News, to report a story about a middle school teacher under investigation by the school district. The students prepared a story for the high school newspaper about Shelly Prieve, a teacher under investigation based on allegations that she used "inappropriate communication" with students, according the Faribault Daily News. But Superintendent Bob Stepaniak decided without prior review by administrators, the story could not be published.

"The issue here is clearly whether district administration can look at an article before publication," Stepaniak told the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, Minn. "That's what it boils down to."

Stepaniak said he was concerned about the article after meeting twice with the student editors because he did not want the story to lead to litigation against the school district. So he asked to see the story before it was published.

The story in question was a collaborative effort between the students and professional reporters, the Faribault Daily News reported. The students shared a byline with the professional reporters in the community paper and in the story to be printed in the Echo.

After Stepaniak requested to review the story, the students met with him and sought assistance from the Student Press Law Center. Christen Hildebrandt, Vicky Carrillo and Ben Jackson responded to Stepaniak's request with a letter saying they felt his request trampled on their rights.

"What you believe [is] inappropriate concerning the Prieve story is not a legal standard for prior review or from stopping an article from publication in a student newspaper and violates our rights as journalists," the letter said. "Therefore we will not submit to prior review. You will have to shut us down if you wish to continue down this path."

The newspaper adviser, Kelly Zwagerman, also wrote a letter to Stepaniak, appealing for him to redraw his request. In the letter, she said she has been the newspaper adviser for over 20 years and has never had a story lead to litigation.

"Any article about Ms. Prieve that might be printed in the Echo would not be obscene; is not libelous; does not promote a service not permitted by minors; does not encourage students to commit illegal acts or violate school regulations; will not cause a disruption of the orderly operation of school; and does not advocate harassment or violence or prejudice," she said in the letter. Three days later, Stepaniak responded by shutting down the Echo "temporarily." Stepaniak said the paper will not publish again until the school board decides what policy to enforce. The students plan to appeal to the board Thursday night to decide whether the superintendent has the right to prior review the paper.

"The issue is now not so much what is in the article but whether or not I have the right to prior review," Stepaniak said in an e-mail.

Both sides made compromises, Stepaniak said. The students offered to let the school district's attorney review the story, but Stepaniak said he disagreed with the idea because "it skirted the main issue."

Stepaniak cited Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which acknowledged school official's right to prior review, in recent interviews with the Star Tribune. Zwagerman used Dean v. Utica Community Schools, a case decided after Hazelwood that said administrators could not censor content without an educational reason, in her defense of the students.

SPLC's attorney advocate, Adam Goldstein, said the Utica decision means, "Hazelwood doesn't protect censorship designed to avoid embarrassment."

Stepaniak said the district has never implemented a prior review policy in the past.

"I am not anxious to have the administration 'looking over the shoulder' of our student newspaper," he said. "However, there are times when there may be a need to and then I feel the administration has that right."

But Goldstein says that under Hazelwood school administrators cannot "pick and choose" what stories to prior review.

"You can't look at Hazelwood, which says prior review can be an educational practice that doesn't offend the First Amendment, and read it as saying that a school official can prior review whenever a story makes him look bad," Goldstein said.

Goldstein emphasized that any form of censorship requires heavy justification.

"Suspending freedom of speech, even a student's, should be the rarest of things undertaken under extraordinary circumstances -- and when we do it, we should be able to explain why," Goldstein said.

Echo, Faribault High School, Minnesota, news