Board Approves Student Freedom of Expression Policy

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Thursday October 25, 2018

The South Burlington School Board unanimously approved a Student Freedom of Expression in School-Sponsored Media Policy at a regular meeting on Oct. 17.

The development of the policy was spurred, in part, by the New Voices legislation Gov. Phil Scott signed into law in late May 2017. That legislation prevents public school and college administrators from censoring material produced by school-affiliated media or retaliation against students and their instructors for exercising their First Amendment rights.

“Content shall not be suppressed solely because it involves political or controversial subject matter, or is critical of the school or its administration,” Vermont’s law states.

Last month, students at Burlington High School published an article in their school newspaper, The Register, regarding the results of a Vermont Agency of Education investigation into BHS Guidance Director Mario Macias, who had been accused of unprofessional behavior. The article was censored by Principal Noel Green, who ordered the story taken down from the school website. Green’s actions were swiftly protested by students and supporters alike. The situation tested the New Voices legislation, and the students were ultimately successful in having the article re-posted in full on the district website.

The South Burlington school policy was not a reaction to this event, but rather an item board member Martin LaLonde had been pushing to get on a board agenda for months prior to what occurred in Burlington. During initial review of the district’s policy, LaLonde said he thought the document should follow the language of the statute as closely as possible and Burkhardt was in agreement.

At the first reading of the policy, resident and Executive Director of the Vermont Press Association, Mike Donaghue, reflected on the New Voices legislation. Donaghue noted that it is special time in the country right now, where people are asking ‘What is the truth?’ and that the New Voices legislation is very important, especially for students working to parse fact from fiction.

Ultimately, the policy that passed at the Oct. 19 school board meeting ensures that students can “access their right to free speech and free press protections related to school-sponsored media and as a means to encourage students to become educated, informed, and responsible members of society.”

The policy also defines the role of the media advisor, school sponsored media, student journalist, and supervising students, the latter of which are responsible for determining the content of their respective media. According to the policy, student journalists may exercise their freedom of speech and of the press subject to the conditions: “is libelous or slanderous, constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy, may be defined as obscene, gratuitously profane, threatening, or intimidating, may be defined as harassment, hazing, or bullying under 16 V.S.S. 11, violates federal or state law, or creates the imminent danger of materially or substantially disrupting the ability of the school to perform its education.”

“I testified in writing in favor of the legislation,” South Burlington High School Principal Patrick Burke said. “I fully support our student journalists and I believe they need to be free to produce a paper bound only by the same code of ethics to which all journalists are expected to abide.”

“In my 20 years as principal I cannot remember a time when I censored the student newspaper,” Burke added.


SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent