School Paper Has the Scoop, Gets Censored
When she learned a fellow student had been accused of shoplifting during a ski trip, 14-year-old Haley Pierson did what any other reporter would do: She got the story.
She talked to authorities, the ski resort and the assistant principal and wrote the story for the Bulldog Express, an award-winning middle school paper not known to shy from controversy. But administrators yanked the story before the paper went to press, saying the accused had suffered enough.
The story now is about censorship and free speech, and the dispute could wind up in court.
“We’re writing a real newspaper,” Haley said. “Just because the girl is a minor doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be reported.”
The school board, which sided with school officials, asked administrators this week to draft rules regulating the content of the newspaper published six times a year at Otsego Middle School in this town of about 4,100.
“We have the ultimate responsibility for everything that goes out of this district,” board President Larry Collier said. “We’re not talking about the Associated Press, the Grand Rapids Press, the Kalamazoo Gazette. This is a middle school paper.”
Attorney Shaun Murphy has volunteered to represent the paper’s editor, 14-year-old Dan Vagasky, in a legal challenge if the policy seems too restrictive.
Mark Goodman, director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, said schools can censor newspapers if they show it is “educationally justified.”
“It’s a gray area,” he said. “But if a school wants to create a mediocre newspaper, giving the principal the power to censor is a great way to do that.”
The Bulldog Express hasn’t been known for mediocrity. It was awarded a top honor last year by the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association and has printed stories on graffiti and students who possessed marijuana.
Advisor Dianna Stampfler said the scrutiny began in January, when the new principal questioned whether a story on a crime-solving psychic was appropriate for middle-school students.
The shoplifting incident involved a student accused of stealing key chains and sunglasses straps worth about $100 from Bittersweet Ski Resort during a Jan. 23 school outing. The case was referred to juvenile court.
Haley’s story included the proposed headline “Eighth-grade ski trip turns ‘Bittersweet,’ “‘ but it did not include the girl’s name. The story was killed before the Feb. 14 edition went to press. A picture of smiling students enjoying the trip did run.
Haley’s mother, Patti Price, said the controversy has ironic consequences.
“If they would have run the article, maybe 250 to 300 people would have read it,” she said. “Now, it’s more like 200,000. Other media have reported about all this. Talk about making the school look bad.”
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