Burlington High School principal Noel Green has reversed course and will allow student journalists to again publish a story online that he had ordered removed.
The article, first published Monday night by school newspaper the Register, detailed the results of a yearlong Vermont Agency of Education investigation into BHS guidance director Mario Macias, who’s been accused of unprofessional and incompetent behavior. Green asked students to pull the story down Tuesday morning, according to a statement from the school district, after he reviewed Act 49, a law passed in 2017 that’s meant to free student journalists from administrative censorship.
“While protecting student journalism, this law also allows administration to ask students to remove any story which is deemed to be ‘substantially disrupting the ability of the school to perform its educational mission,’” district spokesperson Russ Elek wrote in the statement. “In the opinion of Principal Green, this story very much fell under this stipulation at the time, and District leadership supported his decision to ask that the story be taken off the site.”
"Because this story has been published far and wide," Elek wrote, "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."
On Tuesday, the student journalists reached out to the Student Press Law Center for legal guidance on the issue, according to one of the newspaper's editors, Julia Shannon-Grillo. She said Wednesday that the students had not yet decided whether to take legal action against Green and the district.
By Thursday afternoon, the students had not restored the story to the Register's website. At that evening's school board meeting, Shannon-Grillo read a statement from the paper's editors admitting to initial confusion over the law.
Julia Shannon-Grillo at Thursday's meetings
"Since that moment, we have asked ourselves many times, what would have happened if we had not taken it down?" she read. "After three days of consulting with lawyers who specialize in student press law and First Amendment rights, we understand that this order from Mr. Green is a violation of our rights. We felt that then, but we know it now."
Shannon-Grillo continued: "While it is kind of Mr. Green to lift his ban on this one story, what we would appreciate more is if the Burlington School District did not break the law."
Also Thursday, the Vermont Press Association and the New England First Amendment Coalition released a statement condemning the censorship and blasting Green for his "complete misinterpretation of one section of the law." The organizations also suggested four corrective steps, including having Green and Superintendent Yaw Obeng write letters of apology to the students.
"The VPA and NEFAC believe this can be a 'Teachable Moment' not only for Burlington School officials, but students, educators and school board members across the state," the groups wrote.
Molly Walsh contributed reporting for this article.