U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Denver school administrators attempt to prevent student journalists from sharing work with the press

Incident Details

REUTERS/Michael Ciaglo

Teachers, students and members of the community march across from the Colorado State Capitol during a Denver public school teacher strike rally in February 2019.

— REUTERS/Michael Ciaglo
February 12, 2019

School officials prohibited students at East High School in Denver, Colorado, from sharing their photographs and video of local teacher strikes with the press, in what some attorneys allege could be a violation of the First Amendment.

Student journalists at East High had been documenting a city-wide teachers strike since it began in February. Some shared content on social media platforms, and others shared their photographs and video with the press, including the Denver Post, which used the students’ work in its reporting on the strike.

Some students, according to the Denver Post, received pushback from school officials for sharing media with the press.

On Feb. 12, 2019, the Denver Post had reported that the executive producer of East High’s student broadcast team, Toby Lichtenwalter, said he was told that he was only permitted to film in a personal capacity. The Post reported at that time that East High School Principal John Youngquist said students who sent information to the press were acting “as agents of that media source.”

The next day, the Post reported that Lichtenwalter, 17, said he was given an ultimatum by the school principal — that he must either refrain from filming and taking photos inside the school, or leave. He chose to leave.

Other students at East High were also reprimanded for taking photos during the strike, including East High senior and student journalist Joe McComb, who was escorted out of a classroom for doing so.

On Feb. 14, Denver teaches ended the strike after reaching a deal that included a pay raise.

“The Supreme Court has long held that students in public schools do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” Gregory Szewczyk, a private attorney, said in a statement published by the Denver Post. In at least the Lichtenwalter case, Szewczyk said he believes that “East High School’s position violates Mr. Lichtenwalter’s First Amendment rights.”

Mark Silverstein, ACLU of Colorado Legal Director, said that students have the right to document what is happening inside their schools.

“One cannot help but suspect that Denver Public Schools wants to hide from the public and the news media what’s actually going on inside the schools and inside the classrooms,” Silverstein said.

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