Student Journalist Schools Administration Censors
If not for the savvy student editor of the Lake Stevens High School Valhalla, 18-year-old senior Alec Bertholet (rhymes with Chevrolet), the student paper would have been forced to remain silent about perhaps the biggest story at the school this year.
In late January, Gary McDonald, a literature teacher at Lake Stevens, included creationism in a category of myths in one of his classes, raising the ire of a few of his students. Though the incident and its fallout (angry parents and a mandate that McDonald change his lesson plans) was covered in depth by the Everett Herald last Thursday, as well as on Michael Medved's nationally syndicated AM radio show, school administrators initially put the kibosh on a story written for the school paper titled "American Literature Assignment Causes a Stir."
Standing up for his writer, editor Bertholet met with principal Ken Collins last week during their weekly meeting to go over the paper. Collins killed the story on McDonald because it contained confidential personnel information. Bertholet says Collins also told him the superintendent "doesn't want this article in the paper." Collins would not comment for this story. Lake Stevens School District Spokesperson Arlene Hulten says personnel was the only issue.
Bertholet is well versed in student-press rights, and he knew the principal was impeding them. Indeed, Mike Hiestand, an attorney for the Student Press Law Center, says, referring to Collins's initial decision: "You can't just ban a whole topic."
Citing the U.S. Supreme Court's 1988 Hazelwood ruling, which dictates that a student story must disrupt the educational environment in order to be censored, Bertholet stood up against the administration in a yelling match with Collins—who is also the head football coach—that left the teen so frustrated and disillusioned that he was brought to tears. "Not only did we, The Valhalla staff, feel the story was important," he says, "but we feel our rights are even more important."
Bertholet says that Collins told him he had a compelling interest: The flood of phone calls the story would create would prevent him from doing his job. Bertholet continued to draw on the courts, turning to the 2004 federal district ruling in Dean V. Utica, which states that it must be possible to revise a story for print. As it became clear that the passionate young editor wasn't going to be deterred, the meeting was adjourned, the story still off-limits.
"A lot of times high-school students are a little shy and they don't want to offend anyone," says Aaron Coe, the instructor for Lake Stevens's journalism class. "They're more concerned about whether or not people like them; but [Bertholet]'s not afraid to talk to high-school students or take the heat for things."
That courage paid off. On Monday, the district came back with proposed changes to the article. Just a couple dozen words were cut, which merely altered the narrative style of the story to present it as somewhat less of a student-versus-teacher conflict. The revision hardly concerned "personnel issues," making Bertholet's account of topical censorship seem likely.
The young journalist's constitutional skirmish adds some urgency to Rep. David Upthegrove's (D-33, SeaTac) student-press freedom bill, currently in play in the state legislature. The bill raises the hurdle that school administrations must clear in order to censor articles. "Sadly, this is not an isolated case," Upthegrove says. "I have heard horror stories from teachers and students around the state with similar concerns."