By Jack King: CNJ staff writer
Three Clovis High School students have received in-school suspension for passing out a flier at school protesting administrative censorship of their school newspaper.
Purple Press editor Matthew Coker and two reporters said they were punished for violating school procedures in distributing the fliers on school property without prior administrative approval.
The one-day sentences to what the school calls the “Behavior Intervention Program” will be carried out next week, Coker said.
The students said they were trying to gain public support with their fliers after Clovis schools Superintendent Neil Nuttall told CHS principal Andy Sweet to reinstate administrative prior review of the paper’s content. Students contend their paper was not censored by administrators earlier this year, but that changed after publication of two stories covering controversial issues.
Two articles in the December issue of the Purple Press raised Nuttall’s ire, said Coker and reporter Jarin Martin, who spoke with the Clovis News Journal on Thursday. One was about the cancellation of an attendance monitoring program, while another, titled “Denim Blues,” was about a ban on teachers’ wearing blue jeans, they said.
“Because of certain stories that no one thought were inappropriate except Nuttall, he’s forcing us back to prior review,” Coker said.
The three student journalists were caught Tuesday passing out a flier titled “S.P.A.N.C.” in school halls and classrooms.
In a question and answer format the flier states: “‘What is S.P.A.N.C.? Student Press Against Nuttall’s Censorship,’ ‘What are you fighting? The removal of articles and editorials from the Purple Press by the CMS superintendent.’ ‘What’s so bad about that? It’s illegal, first off. It’s also immoral and immature.’
Although previous CHS principals had reviewed the Purple Press before it went to press, Sweet agreed with the newspaper’s sponsor Carol Singletary not to follow the practice this year, Coker said.
It was only after a conference with Nuttall early this year that Sweet e-mailed the students in March that he was going back to prior review, Coker said.
“It’s bad because it takes away from us our ability to tell students if someone in the administration makes a mistake, to write a fair and balanced story on administration mistakes. It also takes away from our learning — learning how to govern ourselves and how to be a free press,” he added.
Nuttall said Thursday he discovered Sweet was not previewing the Purple Press during a formal evaluation of the principal in January or February. Prior review of the paper is a long-standing district policy and he had directed Sweet to follow it in earlier evaluations, he said.
The date of the evaluation and the December publication of the attendance monitoring and “Denim Blues” stories were coincidental, Nuttall said.
“If I say they didn’t come up during his evaluation that would be untrue,” Nuttall said. “They were stories that raised concerns. But, it would have been discovered that the process could have been in better alignment regardless.”
Nuttall said as superintendent he could not discuss the students’ specific cases.
“But, I can tell that if we did have students who were passing out material that was unauthorized and unapproved by administrators in the process we have, they would be disciplined,” he said.
“If there were students passing out material that was libelous or attacked a school employee, demeaned him or her and attempted to create a situation where authority was undermined, they would be disciplined,” Nuttall said.
Katie Graham, the mother of Jarin Martin, said there is right and wrong on both sides of the controversy.
The school was right to punish the students because they passed out the fliers during class and without following the proper procedures, she said. But she understands the students’ side as well.
“I’m not saying they are completely wrong, because we are in America and we do have freedom of speech,” she said.
“I think it’s good the school is checking the paper in advance, but I think the students should have some freedom, too, because they’re getting to be young adults,” she added.
Mark Graham, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va., said there may be a legal basis for the students’ complaint.
“The law has given school officials some authority to censor school publications, but they can’t engage in viewpoint censorship. That violates the First Amendment. Courts have made very clear that students have the right to distribute non-school material on campus, although schools may establish reasonable restrictions as to time, place and manner,” Graham said.
The Student Press Law Center is a non-profit organization that provides free legal information and other advice to student journalists.
Coker and Martin said their journalistic ordeal is “definitely” worth the punishment they’ve received.
“It’s worth it if the students get involved and Dr. Nuttall can see this from our point of view,” Martin said.
Singletary declined comment on Thursday and CHS officials did not return requests for comment by press time. Coker said Singletary did not know about the students’ intentions in advance.