Despite Controversy, Burlington Principal Plans to Vet Student Newspaper Stories | Off Message

Despite Controversy, Burlington Principal Plans to Vet Student Newspaper Stories


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Burlington High School principal Noel Green, whose censorship of a student newspaper led to a public outcry this week, has instituted a new policy that requires student journalists to submit articles for review 48 hours before publication.

The policy, issued two days after Green censored a story on the website of the Register, the school's newspaper, says that it is intended “to affirm support for the school newspaper, but also outline guidelines around how it functions.”

Seven Days obtained a copy of the new policy from the student journalists. It refers to Act 49, the Vermont law passed last year that was intended to prevent school administrators from censoring student journalists. But Green notes that there are six instances, such as libelous or slanderous information, that would be precluded from protection under the law, which is commonly referred to as New Voices.

“The only way school administrators can ensure that distributed material passes this litmus test, they must have the ability to view all material before it is printed,” Green wrote. “Thus, moving forward the BHS Register will re-continue the policy from 2016/17 which required material to be submitted to the administration 48 hours prior to publication.”

The students were scheduled to meet with Green on Friday to discuss his decision to pull down the Register story about guidance director Mario Macias, who faces state allegations of unprofessional conduct. But the newspaper editors — Julia Shannon-Grillo, Halle Newman, Nataleigh Noble and Jenna Peterson — asked to postpone the meeting after receiving Green’s directive.

“We are saddened that this new policy does not include contributions from Burlington High School students, reporters, or community members, or experts in the field, or school board members,” the editors wrote in a statement. “And we are shocked that it does not acknowledge Vermont law H413, also known as New Voices.”

Green on Thursday issued a statement saying he would allow the students to repost the story he'd ordered pulled down on Tuesday because it had "been published far and wide" by other outlets. The students have since reposted the story on the newspaper's website.

At a school board meeting Thursday evening, residents and students blasted Superintendent Yaw Obeng for the censorship and the handling of the Macias allegations.

"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," Shannon-Grillo said in a prepared statement on behalf of the newspaper's editors.

After the enactment of Act 49, the high school operated under a new editorial policy, part of which read:

The Register will not be reviewed or restrained by school officials prior to publication or distribution. Advisers may — and should coach and discuss content — during the writing process. Because school officials do not engage in prior review, the content of The Register is determined by and reflects only the views of the student staff and not school officials or the school itself.
Green did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Obeng responded to questions via email.

“BHS had a practice they followed which did not seem to work in this instance,” he wrote, referring to the Macias story. “The school is developing a policy with the students and staff advisors. I am sure any policy will be within all regulations.”

Mike Donoghue, a veteran journalist and executive director of the Vermont Press Association, said the new policy appears to be in conflict with Act 49.

"The entire purpose of the New Voices law was exactly to eliminate the administration from censoring student publications," he said. "Burlington High School has a fully qualified teacher-slash-newspaper-adviser that is fully trained to sort out what should or should not be in there. This appears to be an attempt by a principal to be able to censor things they are not happy about."

Donoghue said that BHS students had led the charge to get the New Voices law passed because of concerns at the time about administrative censorship. The 2016-17 policy to which Green is reverting, Donoghue said, "was clearly materially wrong, and that’s why the law got changed."

He said members of the VPA, which represents the interests of Vermont's 11 daily and four dozen non-daily newspapers, were "flabbergasted" by this challenge to the law.

"Of all the schools where there was going to be a problem, Burlington was probably not in the top 10 list of places where we thought somebody might be unaware of the law or ignore the law," Donoghue said. 

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