Denver student journalists reporting on teacher strike silenced by school officials

In early February 2019, public school teachers in Denver went on strike for three days. During this time, school administrators placed limitations on the extent to which journalists could cover the conditions in schools while the teachers were protesting. When student reporters attempted to document their experiences, some were met with threats of disciplinary action.

Key Players

Toby Lichtenwalter was the 17-year-old executive producer for Denver East High School’s student broadcast team at the time. Lichtenwalter, then a senior, took footage of conditions inside the school during the teacher strike and planned on sharing it with media outlets that had been barred from coming onto campus.  

John Youngquist is the principal of East High School. Like other Denver Public Schools (DPS) leaders, he placed restrictions on news outlets seeking access to the school’s campus and its students during the strike. He also limited the extent to which student press could cover what was happening inside the school.

The Student Press Law Center (SPLC) is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that informs and advocates for the rights of student journalists in their high schools and universities. The group posits that the rights of students to express themselves and report openly on their experiences should not be compromised by education leaders. 

Further Details

When more than half of DPS teachers went on strike for better wages and institutional support, the conditions in the classrooms they left behind went largely unreported. There was limited substitute staffing, and, according to students, classrooms quickly devolved into chaos.

During the three-day protest, demand grew for coverage of how the students were affected, but DPS allowed only limited media access to school campuses. In the absence of professional journalists, student photographers, broadcasters, and reporters across the city began documenting their own experiences, with the intention of forwarding their recordings to local news outlets.

According to The Denver Post, administrators and principals in at least three DPS schools met with members of the student press and asked them to stop filming and taking pictures on campus, lest disciplinary action be taken. They claimed that such reporting increased the distraction and chaos in the schools, and that because the students were providing information to professional media outlets, they were, in effect, acting as agents on their behalf.

The most notable of these cases occurred at East High School, where Lichtenwalter allegedly took photos and video in the school’s classrooms and hallways. Youngquist gave Lichtenwalter an ultimatum: stop reporting to outside media sources or leave. Lichtenwalter opted for the latter.

This prompted the local affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union to launch a preliminary investigation. According to The Denver Post, Youngquist justified the disciplinary threat by claiming that Lichtenwalter was illegally acting on behalf of professional media. The SPLC called Youngquist’s actions misguided and a violation of press freedom.


Lichtenwalter not considering legal action

Lichtenwalter told The Denver Post he is not considering legal action against DPS or Youngquist. But he expressed hope that publicity about his situation might lead to stronger protection for the student press.