July 20th, 2019

Guest Opinion: Congrats to Those Who Stood up to Censorship at Burlington High

By Greg Sukiennik

Editor of the Brattleboro Reformer

On Monday, four student journalists at The Register, the Burlington High School student newspaper, broke the news that the Vermont Agency of Education had filed six counts of unprofessional misconduct charges against BHS guidance director Mario Macias.

The four student editors — Julia Shannon-Grillo, Halle Newman, Nataleigh Noble and Jenna Peterson — used public records to document the story.

The charges include incompetence, falsifying a student transcript, mistreatment of employees, improper release of student information to a third party and improper treatment of a college student, who was working as a substitute teacher. Macias denies any wrongdoing, but the state is considering revoking his educator’s license for 364 days.

Tuesday morning, BHS principal Noel Green ordered the Register’s teacher adviser, Beth Fialko Casey, to have the article taken down. The four student editors, fearing retaliation by the district against their adviser, reluctantly removed the story, replacing it on the newspaper’s website with a message to the community: “This article has been censored by Burlington High School administration.”

In our view, that’s a fairly clear violation of Act 49, the “New Voices” law passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Phil Scott last year. That law was designed to protect student journalists and their advisers from the very censorship that administrators wrongly imposed at BHS.

Those students should have been congratulated by the adults in the building for beating the state’s professional press corps to a significant news story. Their achievement and public service should be a point of pride for the school and the district. Instead, these young journalists were regrettably silenced by bureaucrats who should have had their backs.

“It feels frustrating,” Newman told WPTZ-TV in Burlington. “Especially because this is a case where we feel like this is information that people really deserve to know.”

The Vermont Press Association, of which this newspaper is a member, and the New England First Amendment Coalition, whose mission this newspaper supports, have issued a statement sharply criticizing the Burlington School District and its high school administration for censoring the story.

The VPA and NEFAC are asking for corrective steps, including reposting of the story (VTDigger reported Thursday that the principal was now inviting students to republish the article because local media had since certified the contents of the original post); as well as a commitment to follow state law protecting student journalists and their advisors; training for area school districts in upholding that law; and written letters of apology from Superintendent Yaw Obeng and Principal Noel Green.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and Article 13 of the Vermont Constitution, both of which guarantee free speech and freedom of the press, do not end at the schoolhouse door. Indeed, freedom of speech is essential to academic inquiry.

It’s a birthright of citizenship, not an optional privilege that well-paid administrators may revoke when it becomes inconvenient. It’s our hope that educators in our region will remember this lesson when student journalists report stories that might cause some initial discomfort.

In the meantime, we tip our caps to the student journalists of The Register for their dedication and poise, and encourage them to keep up the excellent work.

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