Arkansas high school suspends student newspaper

December 5, 2018

A high school student newspaper in Arkansas was suspended, and its adviser threatened with termination, after student journalists published an article about a story questioning the legitimacy of the transfer of football players to another school.

According to BuzzFeed News, Har-Ber High School in Springdale suspended its student paper on November 27 after it published its investigative story on October 30.

In a statement, Springdale district superintendent Jim Rollins called The Herald’s story "intentionally negative, demeaning, hurtful and potentially harmful to the students" as well as "divisive and disruptive" to the community, but did not dispute the accuracy of the reporting.

Springdale school district reportedly requested that the paper’s adviser—Karla Sprague—remove the article from the paper’s website. The article was removed, and the school principal suspended the Herald from publishing at all until new guidelines are implemented. (The article has been re-published on the Student Press Law Center's website.)

BuzzFeed noted that the principal also threatened Sprague with potential termination if the Herald continued to publish. (See update below: On December 3, the school announced the paper may be reinstated following public backlash.)

Buzzfeed described the investigation conducted by the students:

District policy states that students can’t transfer schools because they’re recruited or want to play on a different team. An academic transfer is one of the few valid exceptions to allow a transfer student to play sports.

So the student journalists — the newspaper class has 10 students and is held in second period every day — got to digging.

An anonymous source gave them a pile of FOIA documents from the Arkansas Activities Association showing that five of the players’ parents wrote letters requesting their sons be allowed to play football because they transferred schools for academic reasons.

However, the Herald had also conducted on-the-record interviews with the transfer students themselves, months earlier.

In those interviews, two of the teens said they were transferring to play football.

The state of Arkansas has a law—the 1995 Arkansas Student Publications Act—that protects the rights of student publications from censorship from school administrators, except under specific circumstances.

“School officials at this point seem to me to have completely thrown up their hands and said, ‘We’re not going to listen to what the law says in our state, and we’re going to do what we want,’” Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel for the Student Press Law Center told BuzzFeed.

40/29 News reported that on December 3, students said that the administration announced that the Herald could be reinstated.

Student journalists at the Herald did not immediately respond to requests to comment.

“After continued consideration of the legal landscape, the Springdale School District has concluded that the Har-Ber Herald articles may be reposted,” wrote Rick Schaeffer, the communications director for the Springdale School District, on December 4. “This matter is complex, challenging and has merited thorough review. The social and emotional well-being of all students has been and continues to be a priority of the district.”

Schaeffer declined to comment on whether or not new guidelines have been or will be implemented that govern publishing in Springdale schools.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected]

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