LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – An Arkansas school district that ordered a student newspaper to take down an investigative report now says the article can be re-published on its website.
A spokesman for the Springdale School District said Tuesday the Har-ber Herald could republish its months-long investigation into the transfer of six football players to a rival high school. The article alleged the students transferred for athletic, not academic reasons, which would violate district policy. Springdale had ordered the article be taken off the paper’s website in November and had effectively suspended the newspaper’s operations.
By late Tuesday, the article had been re-posted on various websites, including by professional journalists on social media. The Student Press Law Center also posted the article, and an accompanying editorial by the newspaper’s staff, to its website.
The article was first published on Oct. 30, said the paper’s editor-in-chief Halle Roberts, but students had been investigating the transfers for nearly a year. Three days after its publication, Springdale instructed the Herald to remove the article from its website.
After the newspaper staff asked the district to reconsider, Superintendent Jim Rollins sent a memo to the paper’s adviser, Karla Sprague, denying the request. Rollins called the article, “intentionally negative, demeaning, hurtful and potentially harmful to the students” as well as “extremely divisive and disruptive” to the community.
The reporting was led by Har-ber junior Jack Williams, who said last year some of the football players said in on-the-record conversations they’d transferred to Springdale High School to improve their chances at playing football at a Division I school. After the story went cold for a few months, Sprague and Roberts assigned Williams and two other reporters, Molly Hendren and Matteo Campagnola, to investigate further. Williams said an anonymous source used a Freedom of Information request to obtain documents that suggested the athletes’ parents requested the transfers for academic reasons, which deviated from the students’ stories.
The source also shared a video which showed the father of one football player burning Har-ber gear in a fire pit. Also recorded was Springdale High’s football coach, which Herald staff thought constituted a recruitment violation.
Williams said the immediate reception by the school community was “almost unanimously positive. My track coach came up and shook my hand and told me it was a good article.” In a Nov. 27 letter, Har-ber principal Paul Griep instructed Sprague not to publish anything without prior administrative review. The district also said it was reviewing existing rules and would establish new protocols for student publications.
“It is my expectation and the expectation of the district, that no student publications will be printed, posted online, or distributed until they are reviewed by building/district administration,” Griep wrote. He also said that should the staff ignore the directive, Sprague would face “disciplinary action, up to, and including a recommendation for termination of your employment contract.”
Administrators have not challenged the accuracy of the article other than two quibbles with details, Williams said.
“They said we said (football coach) Zak Clark’s shirt was red and not bright pink,” Williams said.
He also said administrators took issue with the article claiming Clark was drinking, an allegation Williams acknowledged was valid. Although Williams says there are alcohol bottles in the video, it’s not clear that Clark was actively drinking. So, the staff changed the descriptions, and expected the article would go back online.
The district has not commented on what their review of student publication protocol will entail, but Student Press Law Center Executive Director Hadar Harris told the Associated Press that any requirement for the administration to review articles in advance would amount to censorship.
“We believe prior review policies are counter to basic tenets of free speech and press freedom for students,” Hadar said. “So while we welcome the opportunity for the Herald to republish their important story, we remain concerned that they will be able to operate in an environment that fully enables them to publish their work without censorship or review.”
Hadar also said the center was concerned that Sprague might be subjected to “undue pressure” to review her students’ work.
Sprague directed all questions to her attorney.
Roberts and Williams said they were happy about the reaction to the article and are proud of their work. But they feel that as journalists, their rights have been violated.
“The fact that we felt as though we were doing a good job and it gets shut down because they didn’t like it – it’s disappointing,” said Roberts.
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