Vermont principal’s censorship of high school newspaper overturned by school commissioner
First posted October 29, 2018 8:06pm EDT
Last updated July 8, 2019 7:41pm EDT
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In September 2018, Burlington High School’s principal called on the school’s student-run newspaper to remove an article concerning misconduct by a faculty member. After backlash from student journalists and press freedom organizations, the principal reversed his decision but chose to implement a new policy of a 48-hour review period before publishing stories online. Days later, the local school district commissioners reversed that policy.
Noel Green is the principal of Burlington High School (BHS), a public high school of nearly 1,000 students in Burlington, Vermont.
Mario Macias is the guidance director at BHS and was the subject of the story in question.
Beth Fialko Casey is the adviser for the BHS newspaper, The Register.
Julia Shannon-Grillo, Halle Newman, Nataleigh Noble, and Jenna Peterson were the four editors who broke the original story about Macias for The Register. Newman and Noble were 17-year-old seniors at the time, while Shannon-Grillo and Peterson were 16-year-old juniors.
In May 2017, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (R) signed a “New Voices” law into effect that both restricted administrative restraint of high school publications and safeguarded advisers and student journalists from discipline for publishing contentious stories, according to the VT Digger, a statewide news outlet.
On the night of Sept. 10, The BHS Register, the student-run newspaper of Burlington High School, published a story revealing that guidance director Mario Macias had been charged with six counts of unprofessional conduct following a yearlong investigation by the Vermont Agency of Education, according to The Burlington Free Press. The editors verified the facts through public records.
The article quoted an agency report that alleged Macias had created a hostile, offensive work environment, according to VT Digger.
But by the next morning, Green had ordered Fialko Casey, the adviser to The Register, to remove the article from the publication’s website. Green said the story had produced negative effects, particularly for Macias. “In my opinion, [the article] created a hostile work environment for one of my employees,” Green later told Seven Days, a Vermont alternative-weekly newspaper.
Fialko Casey conferred with the article’s four authors, who opted to take the article down pending a meeting with Green. That meeting was postponed after Green’s later directive about a new publication policy, according to Seven Days.
In the interim, the students replaced the article with a blank page, its headline noting, “This article has been censored by Burlington High School administration,” according to Seven Days.
In a Sept. 11 interview with The Free Press, the editors said they removed the story out of concern for their adviser, Fialko Casey. This led them to call on the Student Press Law Center, which expressed the opinion that Casey was indeed protected under the New Voices law.
By the afternoon of Sept. 11, The Register’s reporting was confirmed by several local news outlets, according to Seven Days,
On Sept. 13, the Vermont Press Association and the New England First Amendment Coalition condemned the article’s removal and Green’s directive to do so, demanding that the article be reposted and that the school district and principal apologize to the student editors.
Green lifts ban
Later on Sept. 13, Green lifted the ban on the article, arguing that the information had by that point become common knowledge, according to The Register.
New prior-review policy implemented, reversed
However, on Sept. 13, Green also issued new “BHS Register Publication Guidelines,” which required Register editors to submit stories for review two days before publication. Green argued that such prior review was necessary, as certain content, potentially libelous and slanderous, is not protected under the “New Voices” law. Such a review period, then, would help ensure that students’ stories not commit such offenses.
But Green’s decision was met with backlash, as many pointed out that he had come to this conclusion without the consent of those who would be most affected by it.
“We are saddened that this new policy does not include contributions from Burlington High School students, reporters, or community members, or experts in the field, or school board members,” the Register editors wrote in response.
On Sept. 15, the Burlington School Commissioners reversed Green’s policy and invited students and “local First Amendment experts and organizations” to collaborate with the Burlington School Board on a new student-centered publication standard “with the aim of producing a policy that may become a model for all Vermont school districts,” according to The Register.
Macias placed on administrative leave
On Sept. 14, the school district’s superintendent announced that Macias would be placed on administrative leave, just days after Green said he would continue to work at BHS.
“Our students should continue to rely on Mr. Macias. He is still the director of guidance,” Green told The Free Press on Sept. 11. But that same day, the Vermont secretary of education recommended Macias’ license be suspended for 364 days, according to The Free Press.
On Oct. 3, the Vermont Agency of Education escalated the punishment, recommending that Macias’ license be revoked altogether.