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Herriman High students cry censorship after story is pulled from website

Herriman High Telegraph reporter Conor Spahr, right, talks to KSL reporter Nicole Vowell on Monday, Jan. 22, 2017.
Herriman High Telegraph reporter Conor Spahr, right, talks to KSL reporter Nicole Vowell on Monday, Jan. 22, 2017.

HERRIMAN — Student journalists at Herriman High School are crying censorship after their school newspaper's website was temporarily disabled when they published two stories alleging inappropriate messaging between a former teacher and a student.

Less than 12 hours after students at the Telegraph student newspaper published their investigation about the teacher's departure from the school, the two articles disappeared from the publication's website, which featured a message saying the page was down for maintenance.

When the site resumed functioning, the story about the teacher no longer appeared.

Alex Sousa, the paper's adviser, said Monday that Herriman High administrators had told him to take the site down in response to the students' stories about their former teacher.

"The students, in their tenacity, posted the story that they had written, and when the administration found that, they called me early in the morning and told me to delete that story and also to disable the site," Sousa said.

Now, school administrators are reviewing the students' investigation before it can be republished on the site, he said.

"They've told me they will likely be reviewing it for quite a while before they actually come up with a decision on whether we can run it or post it," Sousa said. "Now, also, they have told me the students aren't allowed to post anything on the website. Everything that gets posted on there I have to do personally."

A spokeswoman for the Jordan School District distributed a written statement Monday saying the district supports "thought-provoking, informative and accurate reporting" in student publications, but the statement did not directly address the Herriman High students, their story or their website.

"It is the responsibility of students, school advisers and administrators to have every story meet these expectations. Again, we encourage students to participate in responsible journalism, sharing informative stories as part of their educational experience," the statement says.

In order to run his classroom like a traditional newsroom, Sousa, a former journalist and freelance reporter, had allowed the student reporters and editors to manage their own workflow, with him overseeing the process and administrators signing off on the articles.

While he praises his students' commitment to their reporting, Sousa acknowledges that he had told them their piece needed additional work and was not ready to publish. However, when the students got wind that area newspapers and television stations were also pursuing the story, they posted the article on their own, he said.

"The students did kind of circumvent the process that we had established to post this," Sousa said. "In my opinion, the article wasn't ready to be posted, but with the story breaking, the students took it upon themselves to put the story up on the website."

While their website was offline, the student journalists created an independent incarnation of their website, dubbed The Telegram, and reposted their original piece, which questioned the instructor's hiring at Herriman after his termination from a charter school. The piece draws on interviews with unnamed student body officers and teachers, the instructor's prior employer and documents obtained through the state's open records law.

Sousa said the students created their independent website without his knowledge in order to give him "plausible deniability." He learned about the site when a Herriman High administrator contacted him with concerns about fliers the students were putting up around the school to promote the site, and which have since been removed, he said.

The students' editor-in-chief, Max Gordon, has also launched a petition on calling for an end to censorship of their website and seeking restoration of the paper's social media accounts, which have been taken down. The petition had more than 250 signatures on Monday afternoon.

Conor Spahr, the student who authored the investigation, said he believes school administrators should be focused on concerns stemming from the former teacher's departure rather than the reporting about it.

"I think it's a bad move," Spahr said. "They think the best option is to censor it and continue to try to keep a cap on it, when really I think they should just be addressing parents', students' and teachers' concerns."

Unified police confirmed Thursday they are investigating possibly inappropriate texts between the former teacher and a female student who was 17 years old at the time. The teacher has not been arrested or charged. The Deseret News has chosen not to identify the teacher at this point.

Before Thursday night, the Telegraph typically logged an average of seven views on a good day, Gordon said. It had reached more than 900 views on the evening after Utah news media linked to the students' scoop.

The 18-member staff was invigorated.

Over the course of the school year and under Sousa's direction, the Telegraph had sought to drive up page views, steer away from light-hearted "teacher features" and begin moving into more provocative subjects like discrepancies in how dress code is applied, among others, Gordon said.

Gordon also claimed the protocol of having Sousa and school administrators approve articles prior to posting them online hadn't been followed throughout the school year.

Spahr began reporting on the teacher's sudden disappearance from school in November, believing the story would fit the paper's new, hard-nosed approach.

The development was curious, Gordon noted, because "he was a well-known teacher. Everyone loved him."

After publishing the investigation, the paper's staff "has gotten a great reaction," Spahr said, from classmates, parents and community members, some of whom have sought to donate to the new publication.

Gordon and Spahr said their reporting on the former teacher isn't finished. They said they will seek further information from school leaders, continue covering the police probe and write about the outcome of the state teacher discipline board's review.

They plan to develop content for their new, independent outlet on their own time.

Sousa said the students are enthusiastic to continue their reporting. He questioned how school administrators could claim they are trying to teach the students about journalism, while at the same time seeking to silence them.

"I'm proud of my students, how could I not be?" Sousa said. "As a high school teacher dealing with teenagers, the fact that you can teach students something and have them put it into practice is probably the greatest accomplishment, so I'm proud of their fearlessness to ask questions and to pursue things and to hold people's feet to the fire to try to put a story together."

Meanwhile, Sousa, who took over the adviser role in August, said he received an email from the school Monday reminding him of his one-year term as an unlicensed, temporary hire. In order to stay on at the school, Sousa would have to become licensed as a teacher in Utah and reapply for the job. He is skeptical about whether he would be rehired.

David Reymann, a First Amendment attorney with Parr Brown Gee & Loveless, explained Monday that high school journalists enjoy fewer protections than journalists at a collegiate or professional level, though they aren't left with a complete dearth of First Amendment protections.

"The schools are generally given a lot of latitude to try to shape the educational environment of the kids," Reymann said. "You would hope that any type of censorship that occurs for student journalists would have some connection to an educational purpose of the school instead of just being done to avoid embarrassment to a member of the faculty or for some other reason."

Jean Norman, campus liaison for the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, defended the students' right to report on topics important to their readership.

"While the administration may have the legal right to censor the student news site because of the Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier Supreme Court decision, such action backfires. It teaches students that chasing their curiosity and attempting to confirm information are futile and that student voices do not count," Norman said Monday.

Norman, an assistant professor teaching journalism at Weber State University, urged the Jordan School District to allow the students to publish freely.