Ms. Alexandra Anderson
The United States has been sculpted by the press. The truth cuts through the clouds of illusions and misconceptions, and provides the necessary clarity in the midst of national and global confusion. School publications are incubators for these writers, teaching skills, ethics and providing first-hand experience. However, a debate has been sparked between administrators and journalists: does a school administration have the right to censor student reporters.
Justin Chapman, the Advisor for the Champlain Valley Chronicle, is strongly opposed to the practice of censorship. He has often preached the necessity for freedom of press, emphasising its relevance inside and out of CVU. “We have to pursue the truth,” he said, emphatic and passionate, “[censorship] is somebody imposing their values on somebody else.” He cites issues such as libraries banning books, and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) imposing “Hayes Code,” a series of provisions that banned sensitive material from it’s screenplays. “You have to allow for the discussion rather than stifle it,” he asserted.
Chapman has been associated with the paper since the early 2000’s, and has commented on the environment of respect here at CVU for its student journalists. “[Journalists] have a lot of freedom and support,” he commented, emphasising the largely civil relationship between CVU’s administration and the press.
The principal of CVU, Adam Bunting, has accentuated the necessity for freedom of press, citing it as both a school and national concern. “Journalism and the press are one of the key processes in a democratic system, [we need] truth opposed to sensationalism,” he insisted.
The issue, however, is how this liberty translates within school walls. “Kids have the right to come to school and be free of disruptions to their learning,” Bunting contended. “[The administration has] the responsibility to function as parents function in a home…we’re held to a different line.” That line, apparently, is the students. “The stories we’ve censored in the past have targeted individuals,” Bunting explained, saying that the administration needed to make CVU a “safe place to learn” above all else. “We can’t disclose information that’s private,” Chapman agreed.
Chapman believes that some journalists get censored before their stories even reach the administration, through self censoring or having the editorial board censor articles that are slanderous, libelous, or simply don’t meet the standard or relevance of the paper. “That’s what editors do,” he explained. Bunting is in agreement, stating, “I wouldn’t hesitate to censor sloppy journalism.”
This debate rose to a crescendo in the early months of 2017, when several Burlington High School journalists wrote an illuminating article about a school administrator for their paper, The Register. Responding to an anonymous tip, they reported that an administrator was under investigation for inappropriate conduct, and had six charges filed against them by the Vermont Agency of Education. After publishing the article, the journalists were quickly censored by Burlington High School’s principal, Noel Green. They were required to remove it from their issue, despite protests from the journalists themselves, as well as members of the community.
In an interview with NBC5, co-author Halle Newman said, “it feels frustrating, [e]specially because this is a case [where] we feel like this is information that people really deserve to know.” This case drew public attention to the issue of school censorship, eventually leading to the state legislature.
In 2017, House Bill 513 (previously Senate Bill 18) was signed into law by the Vermont Governor, Phil Scott, with moving testimonies by Burlington High School Editors, Jake Bucci and Alexandre Silberman. The bill was intended to protect the First Amendment rights of student journalists, stating, “The General Assembly finds that freedom of expression and freedom of the press are fundamental principles in our democratic society granted to every citizen of the nation by the First Amendment…These freedoms provide all citizens, including students, with the right to engage in robust and uninhibited discussion of issues.” This bill, coined the New Voices Law, outlined the conditions of censorship within a school setting. It stated that unless an article violated the schools mission statement, the administration was legally unable to censor its journalists.
“It’s great how journalists can influence policy,” Bunting said in response to the legislation, “it’s hugely important to give leadership fresh eyes.” Bunting emphasised accountability, and strongly believes that journalists are a critical criticism of anybody in power, nationally, globally, or within a smaller community. He embraces the ambition of the Champlain Valley Chronicle journalists, and encourages them to unearth the difficult stories.
There may always be a push and pull between journalists and their administration; however, CVU has emphasized the importance of a free press, as well as it’s willingness to support and allow the press to operate in its own capacity, in order to nurture the future of reputable journalism, and provide new policy shaping writers to the national scene.
The views of Justin Chapman are his own and do not reflect the views of the CVC or the CVU administration.