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The New England First Amendment Coalition and the Vermont Press Association today condemned the recent removal of an article written by Burlington High School students and called for additional education for administrators on a new law protecting student journalists and their advisors.
As the groups explained in a joint statement, the high school principal made an “ill-advised” demand that an accurate news story in the student-run newspaper, The Register, be removed from its website on Sept. 11. The story focused on the Vermont Agency of Education filing six counts of unprofessional misconduct charges against the school’s guidance director.
The four student editors — who broke the story — used public records to verify their reporting. After being told to remove the story from the newspaper’s website, the editors reluctantly complied because they feared retaliation by the district against their teacher and adviser.
In 2017, however, the Vermont Legislature passed legislation designed to protect student journalists and their teacher/adviser from retaliation by school officials for printing certain stories. The legislation was signed into law in May of that year by Gov. Phil Scott after a unanimous vote of support by the House and Senate. Both NEFAC and VPA helped lead the effort to pass the legislation.
On behalf of both organizations, Michael Donoghue, NEFAC’s first vice president, testified before the legislature in April 2017 about why the new law is needed, saying that “we want our students to be curious. To ask tough questions. Not to accept everything as truth without some confirmation.”
In their joint statement, NEFAC and the VPA demanded the following:
• The Burlington School District and top administrators agree in writing to follow the Vermont law known as “New Voices” that ensures the First Amendment for students and teachers/ advisers without fear of retaliation.
• The Burlington School District work with the VPA and other First Amendment groups to sponsor training for at least northwestern Vermont school district leaders so there is not a repeat performance in Burlington or a nearby school.
• The Burlington School District, Superintendent and Principal each to write letters of apology to the student journalists for misunderstanding/ misinterpreting an important student education law.
The groups also demanded that the district allow the story to be reposted to the Register website. In a statement of its own released just prior to the distribution of NEFAC and VPA’s demands, the district said it would allow the story to be republished. School administration officials also said they have accepted an invitation from the newspaper adviser to start a dialogue with the students.
Still, NEFAC and the VPA find the initial removal to be without merit and insist their remaining demands be met.
“The VPA and NEFAC believe this can be a ‘Teachable Moment’ not only for Burlington School officials,” they wrote, “but students, educators and school board members across the state.”
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.
here.Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Please make a donation
Major Supporters of NEFAC include the Barr Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Robertson Foundation, The Boston Globe, WBUR and Boston University.