Less than a month after being threatened with legal action by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for placing restrictions on student speech, the Rochester School District is once again facing allegations of censorship.
Student journalist Toree Hemer wrote a piece for the school paper titled “Teen Drinking Out Of Control.” As part of her reporting, Hemer conducting a survey of 153 Rochester students in which 86% of them said they had tried an alcoholic beverage, and 14% of them said they had previously consumed enough to become intoxicated. The piece went on to list risky behaviors often associated with underage drinking, including engaging in unsafe sex and drunk driving. It concluded with a website and phone number students could contact if they had a problem and needed help.
According to high school senior Aaron Brant, the paper’s Editor-In-Chief, Principal David Vezendy informed him the students weren’t permitted to conduct surveys without receiving his prior permission — Brant went ahead and published the story anyway.
“He didn’t specifically tell me I couldn’t publish the piece so I published it. Then he said he had told me not to, and that we weren’t allowed to conduct any more surveys unless we got his permission first” said Brant in a telephone interview with the Beaver Countian “He told me he didn’t like these types of questions being asked, and that school board policy forbids students from conducting surveys without permission. I read through the handbook, and that’s not what it says.”
But while the administration may not legally be able to prevent students from conducting surveys, they may be able to limit what actually ends up being published in the school newspaper.
Students “might have a problem publishing an article that discusses important but controversial issues like sex education, condom distribution, or drug abuse. That’s because of a 1988 Supreme Court decision, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. It said public school administrators can censor student speech in official school publications or activities — like a school play, art exhibit, newspaper or yearbook — if the officials think students are saying something “inappropriate” or “harmful” even if it is not vulgar and does not disrupt” according to an ACLU guide on student rights.
If, however, administrators refuse to allow the results of a survey to be published in the official school newspaper, students still have the First Amendment right to publish and distribute the story on their own says the ACLU “If it is a completely student-run paper that you want to hand out in school, the school may not censor what you say or stop you from handing it out as long as the paper is not “indecent” and you do not “materially and substantially” disrupt school activities.”
Messages left by the Beaver Countian with Rochester Principal David Vezendy seeking comment were not returned.
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