Sure, he’d already been interviewed by local newspaper and television reporters. But for Conor Spahr, news editor of Herriman High School’s now-infamous student newspaper, it was seeing his story told by The Washington Post that brought home what a big deal his situation had become almost overnight.
“I mean, we’d just seen the movie ‘The Post,’ and then a week later, we were on their home page,” Spahr said incredulously.
As for Max Gordon, the Herriman Telegraph’s editor in chief, it was CNN anchor Jake Tapper retweeting that Post article that took it to another level.
“That meant the world to me. I almost started crying when I saw that,” Gordon said. “‘Jake Tapper retweeted the story?’ He’s a personal hero of mine.”
An investigative story written by Spahr and edited by Gordon about the dismissal of a Herriman teacher under police investigation for allegedly sending inappropriate text messages to a student was pulled from the school paper’s website, which was also subsequently taken offline temporarily.
That action by school administrators prompted Gordon and Spahr to launch a sister site, the Herriman Telegram, as an “independent news source that will not censor material in any way.”
The story about student journalists fighting back against the perceived censorship by Herriman’s administration and Jordan School District has made them instant folk heroes of sorts.
“It’s been very hectic,” Spahr said. “Every day this week, we’ve woken up and thought, ‘OK, it’s dying down.’ And then by lunch time, we have four interviews scheduled.”
Both Gordon and Spahr remain frustrated by the lack of dialogue about the decision to pull their story. They said the only explanation they’ve received so far was a vague statement from a school district representative that their article contained unspecified “inaccuracies,” but that multiple attempts to clarify what they got wrong have been rebuffed.
As a result, they’ve spoken with a member of the Washington D.C.-based Student Press Law Center (SPLC) to discuss their options.
Even though the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in the case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier in 1988 that high school administrators have the legal authority to restrict the content of school-sponsored publications that are not formally established as forums for student expression, that does not give schools blanket authority to suppress student journalists’ work, said Mike Hiestand, senior legal consultant for the SPLC.
“One of the big misconceptions is it gives schools unlimited ability to censor students,” Hiestand said. “Hazelwood doesn’t apply to every case. And even if Hazelwood does apply, there still is a standard. Schools have to show there is a reasonable educational justification for their action.”
He added that the SPLC would be helping the students “try to figure out the next step.” That may include sending a letter to school and district administrators. And if there is not a satisfactory resolution by that point, a lawsuit could be on the table.
“What we do have is a network of referral attorneys, and we have some in Utah that have said if [the students] need representation, they’d be willing to step in and help them,” Hiestand said.
In the interim, the staff of the Telegraph are seeing all their stories going through an extra round of vetting, and they remain stripped of their website administrator privileges.
That part is particularly troublesome to them, considering that as they only produce one print edition per quarter, they were accustomed to being able to publish more timely news on the website.
“It’s a little discouraging. We had more freedom to post there day and night. Our website never required any approval from our administration or our advisor,” Spahr said. “Now, everything has to go through our advisor and an administrator.”
So, for now, they’re looking to expand their reach with the Telegram. Gordon said that site “already got 20,000 page views, compared to, like, the 100 the other one had.”
Meanwhile, they’re not only taking applications from high school students around Utah, but taking in offers of help from people who have reached out to them.
“We’ve gotten lots of advice — about coding the website, especially. That’s been a big help, because we’re not coders,” Gordon said. “Lots of journalistic advice, too — tidbits of support, suggestions of things we can do differently to improve the story. Donations have been a big thing. We set up a donate button, and we’ve received over $500 in donations on our website.
“We also found out that someone set up a GoFundMe to send us pizza,” he added. “I guess that’s some kind of newspaper tradition, where one newsroom sends pizza to another, and it’s raised $240.”
They’re appreciative of all the support, but they’re also eager for things to get back to normal. That may be a little ways off, considering there are yet more interviews on the schedule, with CNN and the Chicago Tribune among those who have reached out.
Spahr, at least, has found something of a silver lining in it all.
“Every time we do an interview, we learn something about how we can do better interviewing,” he said. “We’re picking up great things that we can use as journalists.”