Student journalists at Herriman High School are pushing back against what they view as censorship after an article on a teacher’s firing over alleged misconduct was scrubbed from the school newspaper’s website.
The students on Monday launched their own website, the Herriman Telegram, to host the article and other coverage. Students also launched an online petition, asking that student editors of the school’s Herriman Telegraph have their ability to publish and edit content restored.
“We want to actually do our job as a publication and write stories that people care about,” said Max Gordon, editor in chief of the school newspaper. “We can’t do that with the Telegraph when anything even slightly controversial is censored.”
Sandra Riesgraf, spokeswoman for Jordan School District, say the changes at issue to the school newspaper’s website were made to ensure that the students’ journalistic work is accurate, appropriate and informative.
“We are the publisher of that newspaper and because of that we have to watch out for students,” Riesgraf said. “I think they know, legally, that there’s got to be some oversight of that newspaper.”
Gordon said he and fellow student journalist Conor Spahr published their article about a teacher’s firing on Thursday to the original Telegraph website, which is owned by the school.
The article, which can now be found on the new Telegram website, relied on interviews with students and school administrators, claiming to have confirmed that the male teacher’s employment had been terminated amid allegations of exchanging inappropriate text messages with a female student.
“The most clear word we ever got was ‘inappropriate’,” Gordon said of the alleged content of the text messages.
On Friday, the morning after publication, Gordon said he and other student newspaper editors noticed that the Telegraph website had been shut down and related social media accounts frozen.
When the site was restored Monday, the article about the teacher’s firing was no longer visible and the newspaper’s student staff had been stripped of their administrative privileges over the website’s content and accounts, Gordon said.
“We can’t change anything,” he said. “Now it’s completely run by the administration.”
Riesgraf confirmed that the teacher who was the subject of the article no longer works at the school as of November. But she declined to comment on whether he had quit or had been fired, citing privacy laws related to personnel issues.
Unified Police Lt. Brian Lohrke said an investigation is ongoing into the teacher’s alleged text messages. The student’s parents contacted police in September, Lohrke said, about the communication that allegedly occurred during the 2016-2017 school year, when the student was a minor.
“We’re doing an investigation to see if any criminal behavior has occurred,” Lohrke said. “My understanding is [the teacher] opted not to talk to our investigators. That’s his right to do so.”
In their article for the school newspaper, Gordon and Spahr included documents obtained through public records requests from Jordan School District and Providence Hall, a charter school where the teacher previously worked. The Providence Hall documents showed the teacher’s employment at that school ended in the middle of an academic year, as it did at Herriman High.
No cause for his termination at Providence Hall is included in the documents obtained by Gordon and Spahr. But a code of conduct form included in the teacher’s exit papers inexplicably included highlighted portions related to one-on-one meetings with minor students and the need for more than one adult to be present during extra-curricular activities.
Providence Hall administrators did not respond to request for comment and attempts by The Salt Lake Tribune to reach the former teacher on Monday were unsuccessful.
Gordon said he expects to keep his position as editor in chief of the Herriman Telegraph, as the bulk of the newspaper’s content is unlikely to be deemed objectionable by the school.
“We’d keep the Telegram under operation to write some of the articles the administration wouldn't let us post,” he said.
Riesgraf said the students are free to create and operate their own website, but that any issues of libel or defamation would fall solely on their shoulders.
“They’re responsible for their content,” she said.
The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment protections are limited for high school journalists, compared to their college and professional counterparts. In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled in the case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that high school administrators have the legal ability to restrict the content of school-sponsored publications that are not formally established as forums for student expression.
Jean Reid Norman, campus liaison and board member for the Utah Headliners chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, said the actions by Jordan School District are unfortunate, but appear to be legal.
“The Hazelwood decision in the Supreme Court pretty much stripped high school student journalists of their First Amendment rights,” she said.
The story in question was removed from the Telegraph website before she had a chance to review its content, Reid Norman said. But she added that she would hire Gordon “in a heartbeat” at The Signpost, Weber State University’s student paper, where Reid Norman serves as a faculty advisor.
“My guess is that given the documents they had, that they did a pretty straight-up job on it,” Reid Norman said. “I won’t be able to know because the administration won’t even let the public decide if it was good journalism.”