Read no evil
Unique strand of censorship centers on coverage of injuries at school
In early December 2010, Leibert Phillips suffered what appeared to be a harmless ankle sprain during a school wrestling match.
Three weeks later, Phillips lay on a hospital bed, fighting for his life.
He died Jan. 1.
The student newspaper at Phillips’ school — the Overland Scout at Overland High School in Aurora, Colo. — learned that he died after a blood clot in his right leg traveled to his lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism.
According to Phillips’ death certificate, the clot was a result of the injury sustained during the wrestling match.
The school never reported the cause of death to the public; the student journalists did – or at least they tried.
Before the staff’s piece on Phillips ever saw the light of day, Overland administrators shut down the newspaper and removed the students’ adviser.
While the Overland Scout ordeal was eventually resolved, the story is just one in a series of recent censorship incidents where the content in question has centered on student injuries at school.
“There are times when you can make a good argument that censorship is necessary to protect a young audience in extreme circumstances,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. “A reasonable person just can’t make that argument when you’re covering up an injury or safety hazard at school.”
From the Overland controversy to a dispute over whether a student journalist can publish photographs that could show his school at fault, LoMonte said he has noticed a “definite anecdotal trend” of this particular censorship breed.
In almost all cases, he sees a bigger, underlying issue at hand: school liability.
“When schools go into liability-defense mode, that’s when they’re known to act the most irrationally,” LoMonte said. “Just a whiff of the word ‘lawsuit’ causes administrators to act in an over-the-top way ... But when you remove content that simply makes you look bad, that’s one of most indefensible forms of censorship there is.”
Trouble in Colorado
Though the students at Overland were informed of the newspaper’s shutdown in mid-March, the administration’s choice to act was a long time coming.
After the staff ran two columns early in the school year — one on stereotypes of black students at school and another on coping with suicide — Principal Leon Lundie placed the newspaper under prior review.
Though the staff was cautious with its content after that, opinions editor Jaclyn Gutierrez said there was “no hesitation at all” when it came to covering Phillips’ death.
“Out of respect for him and the people who knew him, this is something that should be reported,” said Gutierrez, a rising senior. “We thought that readers needed to know not just how he died, but more importantly how he lived.”
The article, written by editor-in-chief Lori Schafer, consisted primarily of remembrances from Phillips’ mother, Linda Kore. There was only a brief mention of the cause of death.
While Schafer said the staff believed it was more important to honor Phillips’ life, she emphasized that “so many people knew that a student had passed away, but they didn’t know what had caused it. We needed to tell that.”
Gutierrez said Lundie initially informed the student journalists that the cause of death was stated incorrectly in the story could not be printed.
When the students presented Lundie with the death certificate to back up their reporting, Gutierrez said he told them “this was a district matter and was too big for a school newspaper [to cover].”
Soon after, students said the newspaper was shut down and the adviser, Laura Sudik, was told she was being removed from her position.
Cherry Creek School District spokeswoman Tustin Amole maintains that the administration never prevented the student journalists from running the story, but merely “suggested to them that they go beyond a single source and speak with more people to balance the story. At no time did anybody tell them not to print it.”
She added that Sudik’s supposed removal was “a misunderstanding.”
“The adviser was never removed from the newspaper,” she said.
While Sudik ultimately was allowed to keep her position, she said the school made its intentions clear.
“I was told clearly that I was fired from the position for the next year initially ... because [the administration] wanted the newspaper to go in a different direction,” Sudik said. “If there was a miscommunication, it came from their end.”
With statewide and national support, Gutierrez and Schafer waged a public relations campaign that succeeded in changing the administration’s mind.
“When push came to shove, he (Lundie) backed down from censoring an article that could have made the school look bad,” said Mark Silverstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.
Silverstien, who assisted the student journalists in cooperation with the SPLC, added that the administration seemed to be “concerned primarily about their liability for the wrongful death of a student.”
On April 4, Lundie announced in a statement that the newspaper would resume regular operations – without prior review and with Sudik leading the program.
In line with the district’s goals, Sudik said the newspaper will begin publishing an online supplement to its print edition this school year.
Looking back, Gutierrez said Phillips’ injury “was clearly not the school’s fault. But their covering it up made it seem like it was.”
Carrie Faust, president of the Colorado High School Press Association and a teacher in the district, agreed.
“Sports injuries happen all the time,” she said. “For the district to react so extremely to this article makes me think they were concerned about liability and reputation. That’s no basis for censorship.”
For Amole, there was “never any negligence on the part of the school ... This was just an unfortunate series of events that came together at one time.”
The students ultimately published the story — with the original mention of Phillips’ cause of death intact — in their April edition.
Though Kore, Phillips’ mother, said she was displeased with how the school handled the situation, she will not pursue any legal action against the district.
She said the student journalists’ work provided a sense of closure in what has otherwise been a trying time.
“They did a wonderful job [with the article],” she said. “I appreciated everything they did.”
Getting the truth out
Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate at the SPLC, said the fear of liability by school administrators — whether expressed publicly or not — is increasingly being used as a justification for censorship.
In reality, though, Goldstein explained that it is far more likely for a school to be held liable for restricting a student journalist’s First Amendment rights than for a school to be sued successfully on the basis of what a student newspaper reports.
“It’s not like parents are going to read an article in the newspaper and suddenly discover that their son or daughter was severely injured at a school event,” he said. “If the concern is that someone will sue because the newspaper accurately reported on what happened, that doesn’t make any logical sense.”
While the Overland Scout dispute centered on an article in the newspaper, liability issues can extend to other forms of content.
Chase Snider, former executive editor of Prairie News Media at Kickapoo High School in Springfield, Mo., knows that from first-hand experience.
Snider, who graduated in May, had a trying senior year with his school administration.
It began in August 2010 at “How Night” — an annual back-to-school festival that most of the student body attends.
Parts of the festival resemble a “mosh” event — students participate in a “giant food fight” and fling mud at each other in close quarters, Snider said. School administrators are on hand to supervise.
Midway through last year’s event, though, Snider began to notice some commotion.
“About 100 or 200 students had created a giant mud pit and were gathered around it,” he said. As Snider approached the scene, “I noticed there was a student stuck at the bottom of the pit ... clearly in pain.”
Snider began taking photographs, trying to capture what was unfolding in front of him. He kept his photos general, he said, so as not to show the injured student’s face.
Soon after, an ambulance arrived to tend to the student — a then-senior girl who ultimately spent time in the hospital — and the crowd returned to business as usual.
Later the same night, during a “food throwing” event, a clump of peanut butter landed in the mouth of a student who had a peanut allergy, Snider said.
The student, a then-sophomore girl, suffered an allergic reaction, prompting the arrival of a second ambulance.
Both students made full recoveries.
Snider continued to take photos, asking fellow student journalists in attendance to start gathering reactions for a story on the event.
Neither the article nor any of Snider’s photos, however, would ever make their way into print.
On Sept. 1, Snider said his principal instructed him to turn over all of his photos from How Night, claiming that the district needed “evidence” of what had happened at the festival.
Snider complied, but said he was later told the photos and a draft article could never be published.
The school administration cited the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a piece of federal legislation designed to protect the privacy of student education records, in refusing to release Snider’s photos.
District spokeswoman Teresa Bledsoe wrote in an email that the photos have since been returned to the school’s journalism department. She declined to comment further.
To date, Snider has not received the photos.
Goldstein said images captured by a student journalist are the property of the student, regardless of who owns the equipment used.
“The claim that the district owns the photos because they own the camera is as utterly, legally baseless as Canon saying that they own the pictures because they manufactured the camera,” he said.
Though Snider chose not to pursue legal action, he still thinks the district’s decision was motivated by a desire to protect itself from potential liability for student injuries.
“The fact that they stood by and watched as the situation [at How Night] continued to build, I think there’s definitely some liability there,” he said. “If student safety was the first priority, then this should have been handled differently.”
Snider’s problems, however, didn’t end there. A few weeks later, after he tried to take photos of a car accident involving students in the school parking lot, he was told he would face suspension if he did not put his camera down.
Upon posting a write-up of the accident to the newspaper’s website, Snider was suspended from his role as executive editor for the remainder of the school’s quarter.
Patrick Doran, a Kansas City-based attorney who consulted with Snider throughout the school year, said “the school saw the photos as the output of a school-related function ... and felt it was under their umbrella of rights and obligations to control.”
Though Snider said the remaining months of his senior year were tense, he made it through with no more major issues.
Looking back, he said his dealings with the school administration showed him the importance of a free student press.
“What I’ve learned most is that there’s a sense in many high schools for student newspapers to act as public relations firms,” he said. “If student newspapers aren’t going to be allowed to freely operate, then how can a community ever be expected to challenge or change something?”
A fine line
While Goldstein said Snider’s experience was a clear-cut instance of censorship in which the school district was trying to save face, other examples are a bit hazier.
In May, the principal of Libby High School in Libby, Mont., held the school’s student newspaper, the Tamarack, from newsstands until its staff changed a front-page report about an in-school accident.
The accident occurred when Caleb Lapka, a then-LHS senior, was severely injured in a car care class after a fragmented scrap of steel thrown by another student struck him in the neck.
The student journalists had initially written that the steel “resembled throwing stars” — typically considered violent weapons.
Upon learning of the students’ description, Principal Rik Rewerts instructed the staff to replace the “throwing stars” reference with “scraps of sheet metal.”
“The story was written very quickly after the accident and contained an incorrect reference that may have implicated a student ... who was involved in the accident,” he said.
Rewerts added that “while I don’t think the school was at any fault for the accident ... who knows what would happen with the way the court systems are today.”
No legal action has been taken against the school district, he said.
Jolee Holder, one of the co-authors of the piece, stands by the original reporting.
“Whether the administration wants to admit it or not, these were clearly throwing stars,” she said. “I felt like saying something else would be lying to readers when we should have told the news.”
Although the newspaper had already been printed at a nearby facility and was set for distribution throughout the school when Rewerts stopped it, the district paid for a reprint early the following week with the revised wording in place.
Sarah Barrick, the Tamarackadviser, said she saw some concern on the school’s part for potential liability.
“There was some worry that people might read this and think the school was allowing the students to make throwing stars in the class,” she said.
In hindsight, though, she thinks the administration handled the case well.
“There was no censorship here,” Barrick said. “The story still ran ... and was sensitive to everybody involved.”
Though Goldstein said stories like the Tamarack’s may have no clear right or wrong side, he advised administrators to take a “common sense” approach when dealing with possible liability issues.
“Every time a school gets away with this type of censorship [where liability is a concern], the school is going to try it again,” he said.
“As a general matter, schools are getting more brazen about censoring because of the widespread belief that they can get away with it,” he said. “Experience is teaching them that very blatant acts of censorship will be left unchallenged. That mindset has to change.”
By Seth Zweifler, SPLC staff writer
Fall 2011, reports