Principal pulls interview from student paper, replaces with edited version

NEBRASKA -- The principal of Bellevue East High School will only allow student editors of the school's newspaper to publish the drastically edited version of a Q&A with the superintendent of the school district rather than original report. The principal and superintendent are uncomfortable with the initial interview because of its potential impact during ongoing negotiations.

Editor-in-Chief Angela Rolston interviewed Superintendent John Deegan about recent negotiations between the teacher's union and the district regarding pay raises, which have been the lowest in the state, according to Rolston. She formatted it as a Q&A, then submitted it to Principal Brad Stueve for prior review. Rolston did not know, however, that Stueve then decided to re-submit the interview to Deegan.

"Our principal took it behind our backs to the superintendent and another administrator," Rolston said. "Then the superintendent took my interview, went through all his questions, re-worded them, and basically gave me all his answers, and they want us to print that."

Stueve said Deegan re-worked his answers because he wanted to make sure the words he used were actually conveying what is going on in the district, and not misconstrued. Deegan said he was unaware of the student's intentions when he was first approached, and did not think the ensuing subject matter was suitable to include in a high school newspaper.

"They said they were coming down to ask one question about the stimulus dollars, and they led right into a bunch of other questions, and I was just real honest with the kids," Deegan said. "However, we're in the middle of negotiations, and we didn't feel it was appropriate during the middle of this legal action."

In addition to the interview, Rolston said an editorial written by her co-editor, Ronnie Farr, was also put under the spotlight. Farr's editorial was about students attending board meetings to keep up with current topics, and alleviate confusion about what is going on in the district. The editorial was deemed "inappropriate" by Stueve, and pulled from the paper.

"[The administrators] said we should be going to other things like student council meetings instead, even though board meetings are open to the public and we are allowed to go," Farr said.

Rolston and Farr spoke to Stueve, claiming that the 1988 ruling in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier makes this kind of censorship unlawful. But Stueve said he knew the Hazelwood standard inside and out, according to Rolston, and his justification for the censorship was that he was afraid the original interview would cause unnecessary controversy. 

But this kind of censorship is unlawful, according to Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center.

"Hazelwood requires, at a minimum, a legitimate educational reason to censor," he said. "Being embarrassed by your own intemperate comments isn't a reason."

While Stueve said the situation is "amicable" and he is trying to work it out with the reporters, Rolston said she and the staff members of the paper are prepared to fight. She thinks it is important to run the original interview in the paper because his initial answers were more natural.

"It's like he's censoring himself," Rolston said. "Our district is all about the image. I think it's time we start fighting, to let the district know that we are not OK with this."

Bellevue East High School, Nebraska, news