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The New England First Amendment Coalition will participate on a special committee tasked with drafting a new student journalism policy for the Burlington (Vt.) School District.
The Burlington School Board formed the committee after editors at the Burlington High School student newspaper complained recently about censorship by administrators. The committee’s first meeting is today. Michael Donoghue of South Burlington, NEFAC’s first vice president, will represent the coalition.
“This is an opportunity to set things right,” Donoghue said. “Students at high schools and colleges and their advisers should be protected from any form of retaliation, discipline, suspension or other adverse action.”
Burlington High School students broke a news story last month about the Vermont Agency of Education filing six unprofessional conduct charges against the school’s director of guidance. When the high school principal ordered the story removed from the newspaper’s website — and the students reluctantly complied — Vermont media and First Amendment advocates including NEFAC rallied in support of the students.
Donoghue read a joint statement on behalf of NEFAC and the Vermont Press Association at a Burlington School Board meeting on Sept. 13 condemning the censorship. The principal’s action, Donoghue said, violated the spirit and intent of a Vermont law passed last year to protect student journalists. Students and faculty, including those from Burlington High School, attended the ceremonial signing by Gov. Phil Scott in May 2017.
This “New Voices” legislation was part of a national effort to protect high school and college journalists and their advisers from retaliation by school officials. After the censorship controversy emerged, NEFAC and the VPA offered to help the Burlington School District comply with Vermont law.
Donoghue, who testified last year on behalf of NEFAC for the legislation, said the coalition wants Burlington to approve a policy similar to one under discussion in nearby South Burlington. That proposal would prevent school administrators from restricting content except if allowed under the new law.
The Burlington School Board has asked the special committee to try to complete its work within 60 days.
Serving on the committee with Donoghue are Burlington High School principal Noel Green; student newspaper advisor Beth Fialko-Casey; Traci Griffith, a journalism professor at St. Michael’s College; Jeff Wick, vice chairman of the Burlington School Board; and the student newspaper editors.
NEFAC’s participation in the special committee is the latest effort by the coalition to protect First Amendment rights in Vermont. Most recently, NEFAC testified in support of stronger freedom of information legislation, opposed plans to weaken the state’s open meeting law, co-sponsored a public discussion on free speech, and filed an amicus brief arguing for access to public records on the private email accounts of government officials.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
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Major Supporters of NEFAC include the Barr Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Robertson Foundation, The Boston Globe, WBUR and Boston University.