What began as an investigative article in a Northern Nevada high school newspaper has turned into a First Amendment issue for one young reporter.
Lauren Mac Lean, a 17-year-old senior at Churchill County High School in Fallon, wrote an article on allegations parents made about a music teacher withholding student audition tapes for the Nevada Music Educators Association Honor/All State Choir program, a prestigious state competition for aspiring student musicians.
The local teachers union filed a grievance with the principal and the Churchill County School District superintendent attempting to block publication of the article, claiming it would harm the teacher’s employment and could deprive her "of any professional advantage without just cause."
The article is scheduled to be published in Friday’s edition of the school’s newspaper, The Flash. In Nevada, a principal has the authority to decide whether an article will run unless the school board or superintendent say otherwise, school officials said.
"When we cut freedom of speech, we’d better be very careful on what we’re censoring," said principal Kevin Lords. "We followed procedures and policies and consulted counsel, and if we put a stop to it, we’re in violation of the First Amendment."
Churchill County Superintendent Carolyn Ross said the district is following negotiated contracts with teachers and protecting both student and staff rights.
"I believe the greater risk is to suppress information from the public that they have a right to know," Ross said.
Phone calls and e-mails to the union, the Churchill County Education Association, were not returned.
Mac Lean said she has never had the teachers union look over an article before it was published because that wasn’t required.
"High school newspapers have restrictions, but the restrictions I do have as a high school journalist, I’ve already followed them," she said. "It shows me they’re more interested in protecting a teacher’s reputation and keeping their jobs than teaching the students. They teach us in government classes that we have rights. It’s almost confusing this has happened."
Frank LoMonte, executive director for the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va., said it’s rare that a teachers union would "try to muzzle a student newspaper." He cited Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, a U.S. Supreme Court case that held that student newspapers that have not been established as public forums for student expression are subject to a lower level of First Amendment protection.
"If the newspaper is a forum for student expression, then there are very broad First Amendment protections," LoMonte said. "The school can only step in if it disrupts daily operations like causing fistfights in the hallways."
If the student newspaper is heavily edited and rewritten by administrators in a nonforum publication, the school can overrule the students’ wishes "if they can tie it back to a legitimate educational purpose," LoMonte added.
"The fact that a story might provoke disagreement is not a justification. That’s what newspapers are supposed to do, to provoke people, have disagreements and make them think."
Jerry Ceppos, dean of the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno and a 35-year veteran of the industry, said the situation at Churchill is a case of prior restraint.
"I am so troubled that a teachers group would try to block the publication of a news story," Ceppos said. "This is contrary to what teachers should be teaching. I don’t understand it. They ought to be teaching rights and responsibilities of the First Amendment."
Contact Kristi Jourdan at email@example.com or 702-383-0279.Churchill County High School newspaper article