Freedom of Press Violation

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Freedom of Press Violation

Angelica Smith and Simon Scannell

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Freedom of the press has always been a controversial subject within society, and in current times it has become even more so. In the past four years the American people have heard the term “fake news” more times than we can count. When we live in a time where our president calls any media he deems to be too invasive “fake”, honest journalism is more important than ever. 

Late last year the Gresham Argus ran into something similar, though on a much smaller scale. After an incident on campus last April involving a student and a school resource officer, we decided to write an article about it and quickly ran headfirst into a situation we didn’t anticipate.

We were told by our interim principal Terrence Smyth that we couldn’t include a quote from the student involved (where we did not mention her by name) because of FERPA, which affords the right to parents to keep their children’s identity hidden. This means that we needed to keep any information surrounding the minor disclosed. After interviews with the student involved and other witnesses, we felt it was important to include quotes that cited the viewpoint that the student was brought down by our student resource officer using a tactic that many didn’t seem warranted. 

Administrators at our school continued to say this information from the student and witnesses was false. The SRO involved cited FERPA law and didn’t comment on the situation and administration told us we were going against FERPA by even printing the article.  

Not only were we accused of using fabricated quotes, we were taken advantage of by the administration because they were aware that we weren’t familiar with the law they cited we might be violating. Little did we know, by asking for prior review of our article, which entails being able to make changes to our story before we publish, our administration themselves unknowingly broke the law. 

As student journalists, we felt like this was a very important moment at Gresham High School and we needed to get to the bottom of it. Why were they tackled? Were they doing something to provoke the officer to tackle them? What is the role of the SRO on campus?  Did they violate this role? These were all questions the larger student body was also dealing with which led to a peaceful walkout to the police station to try to protest what some saw as a larger problem on campus.  

Another question that came up in the process of writing the article, and multiple edits, was why the administration at our school was so against us covering the topic of the incident in the first place.

   We had a conversation with a lawyer Friday, May 31 during lunch. The staff attorney from the Student Press Law Center specializes in helping students figure out issues of Freedom of the Press at high schools and colleges. We were allowed to listen in as our adviser spoke with the lawyer. The lawyer said that the situation was ridiculous and that what our administration was trying to do was  illegal. She said that administrators, especially in Oregon, are not allowed to take part in the editing and revising of the newspaper because we are protected by the First Amendment. 

   Ultimately, the administrators did make edits to the final piece, which was published. They told us that they would not let us print our version, which is why we were forced to make the edits they wanted. We would have given the administrators more pushback had we had the time. Wednesday, June 5 was the senior’s last day, and since five out of our 12 pages were the senior edition we needed to get the paper out on time. 

  The person who made the most “suggestions” (demands) was our interim principal Terrence Smyth. But it wasn’t just him. One of our assistant principals Aimee Alexander-Shea also gave us a lot of pushback. As can be noted, neither of these people are serving at Gresham High School in the 2019-2020 school year. 

  The things that the administration said kept changing. We interviewed interim principal Smyth in late May during class and he said that we would be fine to mention the incident as long as we didn’t go into any detail. A week later, they told us that we could not  print any quotes from the student involved in the incident and that we could not mention the incident at all. 

  They also questioned whether or not we were following the High School Student Journalists Code of Conduct, which consists of not being slanderous, vulgar, factually inaccurate, printing anything that is an  invasion of privacy or violates federal or state law. They told us that we may be spreading libelous things with our article, said that our facts were off, that we violated FERPA law, challenged whether the quotes we had were actual quotes, and our journalistic integrity.  Administration also said that the article would cause a distraction amongst the student body. 

 Ultimately, school administrators  threatened our newspaper adviser’s job, which is what made us cooperate with their wants, which included writing a final heavily edited version of the story which included the following message on top of the headline: “THIS ARTICLE WAS PARTIALLY REDACTED AND HEAVILY EDITED DUE TO THE DEMANDS OF GRESHAM HIGH SCHOOL ADMINISTRATORS” Students reacted well when we handed out the paper, and it seemed to be the most excited they’ve ever been about The Gresham Argus.

    An underground newspaper was handed out the week before finals on the sidewalk in front of the school which had our full article- the way we wanted it. This was done by community members who were interested in what we had to say. The pink piece of paper had the following message on top of the article: 

THIS IS THE POLICE ON CAMPUS ARTICLE IN FULL, WHICH THE ADMINISTRATION DOES NOT WANT STUDENTS TO VIEW. WE ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH THE GRESHAM ARGUS.

 This year, as a result of the administration’s actions from last year, we  have a new policy for our newspaper: all news articles the interviews must be recorded. We believe that will prevent people from going back on their word and will also eliminate the possibility that we wrote a quote incorrectly. Although we still believe in the journalistic integrity of each our reporters on staff.  

   We believe that talking about censorship is important- especially in a school setting, and even more so in a school newspaper. It allows for real conversations about where the line is for what is “fair game” for journalists to tackle, and what is legally not allowed. However, as has been our case at The Gresham Argus over the past few years, we have found that this issue also gives many on campus and in our community the chance to see things the district or school itself may be trying to hide. In a way, this entire incident was a lesson for everyone involved because knowing the law and the limitations we have on both sides has created a better understanding of the freedom of the press for all parties involved. 

  We think that professional and student journalists are able to keep those with power in check by seeking to present both sides of the story in a fair and unbiased way, which can sometimes result in negative press for those involved.   But sharing with the public the facts (positive or negative) in a situation is paramount to a journalist’s job, and a school newspaper is not different. Keeping people in power in check is vital to being a journalist. But as a professional journalist Peter Korn once told us, it is not the job of the journalist to tell people what changes to make, only what must be fixed.