In reversal, Burlington principal allows students to publish story

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The Burlington School District issued a statement Thursday defending high school principal Noel Green's decision to tell the school's student newspaper to remove a story despite questions about whether Green had violated a new law protecting student journalists.

At the same time, the district said Green was now inviting students to re-publish the article that had been taken down on Tuesday because local media had since verified the contents of the original report.

The school district said in a statement that Green "carefully" weighed the state's New Voices law and believed that the publication of the story was "substantially disrupting the ability of the school to perform its educational mission," allowing him to tell the students to remove the story.

The BHS Register broke news on Monday night that the Agency of Education had filed six licensing charges against the high school's guidance director, Mario Macias. But the student editors who wrote the story — Julia Shannon-Grillo, Halle Newman, Nataleigh Noble and Jenna Peterson — removed the story from the newspaper's website Tuesday morning after Green told them to.

But the school district said that because other news outlets had verified the information, Green said the students could put the story back up on the website.

"Because this story has been published far and wide, Principal Green has revisited this issue and along with support from District leadership, has decided that this one story from the BHS Register no longer fits this stipulation," the school district said.

The article had not been re-published as of late Thursday afternoon, as the initial link to the story continues to read "This article has been censored by the Burlington High School administration."

Mike Hiestand, a senior legal consultant for the Student Press Law Center, said that Green's interpretation of the law was "nonsense."

"If that is Principal Green's take on this law, this is going to be a very, very long year for him," he said. "The law was passed specifically to prevent things like this from happening. His interpretation that this was substantially disruptive does not conform to what the law is."

Hiestand explained that the "substantial disruption" standard was taken from the Supreme Court's landmark 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines case in which the court sided with students who sued their school district after being punished for wearing armbands to protest the Vietnam War.

The standard is meant to allow students to keep their First Amendment rights in their schools while letting administrators prevent serious physical disruption of classes, Hiestand said. For example, if the students had written an editorial calling on their classmates to walk out of class or otherwise disrupt teaching, the school could order them to take it down.

But an accurate report using public records clearly does not fall under this standard, Hiestand said. He also disputed Green's assertion that the publication of the information in other outlets affected whether the Register's story met the "substantial disruption" standard.

"If his original claim is true, that this information was going to make his ability to run his school impossible, wouldn't it being published other places make it even more difficult to keep the school running?" he said.

Hiestand said that the SPLC had worked with the students, who were considering legal action. But since the story is being allowed to be re-published, they are no longer considering a lawsuit, he said.

The school district did not immediately return a call asking for more information on how specifically the publication of the story had disrupted the school's ability to educate its students.

The New Voices law was signed by Gov. Phil Scott in May 2017 and states that "content shall not be suppressed solely because it involves political or controversial subject matter, or is critical of the school or its administration." Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, introduced the legislation in Vermont and said that she believes the principal made the wrong decision in telling the Register to take the story down.

The Vermont Press Association and New England First Amendment Coalition released a joint statement on Thursday, demanding the Burlington School District, superintendent Yaw Obeng and principal Green write apology letters to the student journalists "for misunderstanding/misinterpreting an important student education law. "

The groups are also calling for the district and top administrators to agree in writing to follow the New Voices law and work with VPA and other first amendment groups to sponsor training for northwestern Vermont school district leaders so a similar situation does not happen again.

Nancy Olson, the Vermont state director of the Journalism Education Association and former teacher and student newspaper adviser at Brattleboro Union High School, said she wanted a further explanation from Green on how the publication of the story disrupted the educational function of the school.

"If it disrupted it before, why would it suddenly not be disruptive it if it has been widely disseminated?" she said. "The logic doesn't make sense to me."

She added that she thought that had the incident could have shed light on the application of the law had the administration continued to block publication.

"It's too bad, in a way, that this won't go further to clarify the law because it's pretty clear from my looking at it that the principal and the superintendent are in violation of the intent of the law," she said.

The student editors did not immediately return a request for comment.

The district added that it was "grateful" for the student newspaper's work and the dialogue the issue has created between the students and the administration.

"It is our hope that students and staff will use this case as a learning experience both in and out of the journalism classroom, and that we can grow together," the district said.


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