The editorial staff of the BFA Mercury met with representatives of the Maple Run Unified School District to discuss the Board’s recently created policy on student voice in school sponsored media. This meeting was arranged after the Mercury’s faculty adviser and one of its editors spoke before the March 20 School Board Meeting requesting a reevaluation of the policy, which they said did not meet the state statute on student press freedom.
Both an audio recording and a transcript of the meeting are below. After this meeting, the Board added discussion of the policy to the May 14 School Board Meeting to be held at Saint Albans Town Educational Center.
Meeting at the MRUSD Central Office on April 12 to discuss Vermont Statute 16 V.S.A. § 1623 “Freedom of expression”:
Jeff Morrill (Head of Board)
Alisha Sawyer (Board)
Kevin Dirth (Superintendent)
Sue Ceglowski (VSBA)
Julia Scott (Mercury Editor)
Haley Seymour (Mercury Editor)
Peter Riegelman (Mercury Staff Adviser)
MORRILL: So as I said earlier, if you guys could go over your issues with the policy then we’ll ask Sue questions.
SCOTT: Alright, so our concerns with the Maple Run Policy are primarily the lack of the language listed in subsection (f) of the Vermont Statute that a school “is prohibited from subjecting school-sponsored media, other than that listed in subsection (e) of this section, to prior restraint.” and that “a school may restrain the distribution of content in student media described in subsection (e), provided that the school’s administration shall have the burden of providing lawful justification without undue delay.” In the Maple Run and–
CEGLOWSKI: Could I just interrupt you for a sec? I want to make sure I’m looking at the right document?
CEGLOWSKI: You’re referring to the Vermont Statute right now?
SCOTT: Yes, the Vermont Statute, §1623, Freedom of Expression.
CEGLOWSKI: And you’re referring to subsection (f)?
SCOTT: Yes. So, notably, the Maple Run Unified School District policy is lacking much of that languages “MRUSD may restrain the distribution of content in student media that can be demonstrated to violate any of the conditions 1-6 above”. We feel that by stating only the affirmative “staff may restrain the distribution of content” if it fits those criteria rather than beginning with “is prohibited from subjecting school-sponsored media, other than that” leaves it ambiguous as to the level of restraint that is allowed.
MORRILL: I’m not sure what the best way to do this is. I just wonder if that’s covered under the implementation section which says “Subject only to the conditions 1-6 below, a student journalist may exercise freedom of speech and
freedom of the press”, right under implementation.
MORRILL: So, go on, I just didn’t want to forget that.
SCOTT: ALright, and that the state law specifically states that administration must provide “lawful justification without undue delay”, essentially, they’re subject to due process, whereas the Maplerun Policy does not state any need for evidence or justification. If you’ll refer to the Student Freedom of Expression in School-Sponsored Media as Proposed by the BFA Mercury. We feel that-
DIRTH: You wouldn’t have that, Sue.
CEGLOWSKI: Okay, I didn’t think I did.
SCOTT: Oh, goodness, I can create a scan of this, but I-
BRENDA COMSTOCK: Do you want me to do that?
SAWYER: Yeah, could you scan it actually?
SCOTT: I have an extra, so you don’t need to give up yours…. Yes, you’ll have that in a moment. Should I hold off until she has that?
SAWYER: Yeah, let her have a chance to look at it.
SCOTT: Then I guess if we’re holding off on that, our second concern is the addition of language to the subsection (e), 1-6, on the Maplerun Unified School District Policy that is not in either the Vermont Statute or the in the suggested VSBA model, the inclusion of under 1 of “intentionally misrepresents a cited source” and under 3 “can be defined as fraudulent”. This wording is not in the suggested model or in the Vermont Statute itself and we feel that it should be struck.
MORRILL: Can I ask why? Is it because you want to misrepresent a cited source?
SCOTT: No, it is not because want to misrepresent a cited source but we feel that A. ) that does fall under the parameters of journalistic ethics to begin with, that that is not something that school administration or MRUSD administration should be responsible for but rather something that student editors and the faculty advisor should be in control of.
MORRILL: What about libel and slander?
SCOTT: Libel and slander are legal standards that are respected nationally as low speech. Libel and slander are not protected, but the inclusion of these additional pieces here I feel-
SEYMOUR: They’re just not congruent with the law.
SCOTT: They’re not congruent with the law and frankly they feel redundant too. If something is libelous or slanderous, then intentionally misrepresenting a source falls under that. It’s excessive to go beyond, it feels, almost, like targeted language and I wonder if there is a need for it.
MORRILL: You’ve stumbled upon one of my pet peeves with policies, and Sue I’m sure will understand this, but they are so repetitive. It’s like “Why are we listing these ten drugs, but then saying ‘but not to exclude other illegal drugs’ so I totally agree with you on that one. However, I don’t think they do any harm since it’s not your intent to be fraudulent or intentionally misrepresent sources. Sue, did you get that other document yet?
CEGLOWSKI: Let me see, hold on. I have to refresh. Yes, I did.
MORRILL: I used to argue about the extra words all the time and the I gave up.
CEGLOWSKI: Yes, I have it in front of me now.
MORRILL: Okay, thanks.
SCOTT: Alright, wonderful.
CEGLOWSKI: So is this a proposal to have a different policy?
SCOTT: Yes. And it is largely the same as the original law, largely the same as the policy as the district has it now, with key inclusion of, after the 1-6 bulleted list, of “MRUSD staff is prohibited from subjecting school-sponsored media, other than that listed in subsection (e) of this section, to prior restraint.” and “provided that the school’s administration shall have the burden of providing lawful justification without undue delay.” We feel that by leaving those out of the Maple Run policy it is incongruent with the law itself and in studying the policies of other schools in Vermont after the Maple Run — not the Maple Run, excuse me– after the New Voices legislation passed particularly the Burlington District policy, which we helped use to model our changes, specifically state in the affirmative that students have these rights rather than just in the negative that if these particular criteria are broken there may be administrative restraint.
MORRILL: I think this would be a good point, Sue, for you to talk about that point now which is in terms of stating the student rights in the positive as opposed to a negative?
CEGLOWSKI: First I’d just like to give a brief explanation of how VSBA model policy models get developed. This policy is a required policy by law, as you all can see by looking at the Freedom of Expression Law, and we have a number of policies in our policy manual that are required by law and when those are drafted they are usually done — they’re always done — in collaboration with VSBIT [Vermont School Boards Insurance Trust], which provides insurance coverage to most of the school districts in Vermont and VBIT has its own attorneys Heather and Pietro Lynn who review and also often times help us initially develop the required policy. So that is the process that the VSBA model policy went through. It is just a model so it can be adapted to your situation or your request. Any changes to it, any additional language though we advise the district to run by their attorney, so if you were going to make these changes, that’s what I would advise.
SCOTT: Can I ask also then was the addition of the language “fraudulent” or “misrepresenting a source” run through the legal team there prior?
MORRILL: It was read by our lawyer, which is Pietro Lynn, the one she referred to who works for VSBIT.
DIRTH: Who was that, Jeff?
MORRILL: Pietro Lynn.
CEGLOWSKI: So Pietro reviewed that, the language of “intentionally misrepresents a cited source” and “fraudulent”?
MORRILL: Yes, he reviewed the whole policy.
SCOTT: Alright. But our primary concern is with that particular paragraph, in the Vermont Statute it is under (f), in the Maple Run it is under “Implementation” under the list of criteria. We feel that it is incomplete simply to list that staff “may restrain the distribution of content in student media described in subsection (e)” because the law elaborates on that. That elaboration is left out of the Maple Run policy and left out of even the VSBA model policy. We feel that this language is particularly important to ensuring that the policy is consistent with the provisions of the the statute.
MORRILL: Can you talk to that, Sue, as to why that’s-
CEGLOWSKI: I don’t know why that language was left out of the VSBA model. I don’t think it would be a problem to add it to your policy because it is exactly what it says in the statute.
CEGLOWSKI: I don’t know why it was left out because the policy was developed before I worked here. I was not involved in the development of the model policy.
MORRILL: And this is one of those other things I hate about statutes, is it says “undo delay”. What is that? No one knows
DIRTH: So, Sue, I have a couple questions. Let’s say for a second that the board decided to do what the editors are suggesting and put subsection (f) in verbatim into the Maple Run policy.
CEGLOWSKI: Alright, let me look. You’re talking about subsection (f) of the statute?
DIRTH: Right. That’s what they’re suggesting is add that first sentence to accompany the second sentence, “the school may restrain the distribution”. Having done that, from the policy or from the law, is there anything that disallows, they say a staff member, but let’s say an administrator or principal to look at the policy in terms of whether one through six is good or bad or being followed or not being followed?
CEGLOWSKI: Look at the policy or look at something that’s written?
DIRTH: look at the newspaper or whatever type of thing.
CEGLOWSKI: Okay. So what is your question?
DIRTH: So my question is, if we do what is suggested-
MORRILL: I was wondering that too.
DIRTH: Sorry. If we do what is suggested, put into our policy that additional sentence, is there anything that still disallows, tells a person higher up, like a principal that they cannot review the newspaper – let’s say newspaper – in terms of one through six?
CEGLOWSKI: Okay, I understand what your saying. I discussed this with Nicole a little bit this morning because I was trying to anticipate some of the questions that you might have and the VSBA position is that – and i’m sure that this is the position of the school as well – that all employees are expected to follow all district policies and that the principal and the media adviser would likely be people that are working together to ensure compliance with this policy. It may be between the superintendent and the principal as to how the process of that is going to work. We’re not aware of any schools that have done procedures to go with this policy but its possible that you could develop procedures if you wanted to get really specific.
DIRTH: Okay. So-
CEGLOWSKI: Does that answer your question?
DIRTH: Forgive me, maybe I’m dense or you’re taking a middle ground here. The question is, I see it a little bit black and white, no matter how it’s done whether its done through collaboration of the media adviser and the principal, which incidentally I think is the best way, but no matter how its done, does the principal have the right or not have the right to review something in terms of those six areas to ensure that’s being done.
CEGLOWSKI: I don’t believe that the policy specifically covers that. Like I said, I think our answer to that is that every employee is expected to follow it and the principal is the building administrator, they are, you know, “the buck stops here”. They need to develop procedure with the media adviser to ensure that there’s compliance with the policy.
SAWYER: And do we have that?
CEGLOWSKI: And that-
SAWYER: Is there a procedure?
DIRTH: I’m sorry?
CEGLOWSKI: It sounds like you’re, like maybe there’s an issue with not wanting to have the principal review?
DIRTH: I’m not 100 percent sure.
DIRTH: So I guess my next question goes along with that is, worst case scenario, never happened at BFA and it never has happened at least during my time here, worst case scenario, the BFA Mercury put something out that is legal libelous or slanderous and it gets out in the community: ultimately whose responsibility is that? Who takes the fall for that?
CEGLOWSKI: I’m just looking at the statute to see if there’s anything specific about that in here.
SCOTT: I couldn’t find the word “review” at all.
CEGLOWSKI: I don’t really think it is covered in this statute. Presumably, it would be the principal or the superintendent.
DIRTH: Thanks. Okay. Thank you.
MORRILL: Alisha, do you have any questions for Sue?
SCOTT: Haley, do you have any questions?
RIEGELMAN: Nope, not unless you guys are-
SEYMOUR: Actually, may I just say that for the question you just asked, I feel that if we were to publish something that was libelous or slanderous, then we would be the ones to take responsibility for it, since in the law it says that anyone who goes against those six points, they must be disciplined for it. It says “a student journalist may not be disciplined for acting in accordance with this section”, which means that they should be disciplined for not acting in accordance with the section. So, it’s just all the opposite. I think it’s our fault if we were to violate those six points
SCOTT: Additionally, it does say “Subject only to subsection (e),… Student supervisors of school-sponsored media are responsible for determining the content of their respective media.” I think that because that puts the responsibility of content onto the student supervisors, in this case the editors, that also puts any failure of the publication to adequate screen and edit such stories on the shoulders of the student supervisors.
MORRILL: Okay. My guess is everybody would get sued.
SCOTT: I mean, yeah.
MORRILL: Probably. Whether it would hold out or not…
DIRTH: If they had their chance, do you think they’d sue Haley or us?
MORRILL: Who are they going to win more from?… Okay, so if we don’t have anymore question, we’re going to have to let Sue go.
DIRTH: Yeah, Sue you’ve been a big help. We appreciate you taking the time on a Friday afternoon.
CEGLOWSKI: Oh, you’re very welcome. I think your two students there are ready to head to law school.
SAWYER: That’s a compliment.
SEYMOUR: Thank you.
SCOTT: Thank you.
MORRILL: Alright, thank you very much.
CEGLOWSKI: Yeah, have a good weekend everyone.
ALISHA: Thank you, Sue.
MORRILL: So if I were to try to summarize, I would say that truly I do believe that the implementation part was put in the model policy to say that you guys have the right to write whatever you want but you would like to , after the six items, you would like to put in that positive statement about only being able to be restrained for these six things and then you would also like to put in there that part about…
SCOTT: “Administration shall have the burden of providing lawful justification”.
MORRILL: Right. So basically that one section covers two of your changes and then I think the only other changes would be to items one and items three where there’s additional words. Have I missed anything?
SCOTT: No, that’s the sum of our argument.