All the news that's fit to censor

It started with a frivolous teenage e-mail. A Boone High School student, fed up with what he considered a poorly conceived move by Orange County Public Schools superintendent Ron Blocker, registered a complaint from his home computer on the school board's website. Last fall, Blocker controversially swapped the schedules of the county's middle and high schools in an effort to save money. The student, a member of Boone's cross- country team, felt inconvenienced by the swap — morning cross-country practices would no longer allow students time to go home and shower. Instead, the male students would have to use the showering facilities in the boy's locker room, which, rarely having been used for such activities, had no shower curtains. He was angry.

So this student, whom Orlando Weekly is not naming, called Blocker a "dumb-ass" on the feedback section of the school board's website, choosing not to sign his name, but rather refer to himself as a "pissed off student."

School officials tracked him down via his IP address and slapped him with what's called a level-three referral, a punishment that would scar his otherwise admirable student record and render his consideration for the National Honor Society and by university admissions departments at risk. He also quit the cross-country team.

Laura Uncapher, the editor-in-chief of Boone High School's student-run newspaper, Hi-Lights, pursued the story. On Nov. 7, 2008, she set out to publish an investigative report and accompanying editorial critical of the school board's reprimand.

"By punishing a student for an e-mail he sent from his home computer, county officials blatantly denied the student's right to freedom of speech," the paper editorialized. "According to the Orange County Code of Conduct, a student has the right ‘to express views through speaking and writing, but without being obscene, disruptive, slanderous or libelous' while on school property. Since the student's act didn't occur on campus, the county shouldn't have punished him — and even if it was on campus, the student can voice his opinions as set down in the Code of Conduct."

But Boone principal Margaret McMillen refused to let Hi-Lights run the stories. In Orange County schools, freedom of the press is safe, so long as you don't criticize the boss — or even talk about someone else who criticized the boss.

"I read the e-mail," says Uncapher. "I laughed at the e-mail. It wasn't even something that was aggressive or anything. It's something that if I read it, I would move on. But `the OCPS official who read it` went through all these lengths to find him and punish him."

That, according to Uncapher, was a story worth reporting. For months, though, McMillen declined to even meet with Uncapher. The paper's staff pressed on, citing a 1969 Supreme Court decision that allowed students to express their opinions — in that case, by wearing armbands in protest of the Vietnam War — so long as such opinions weren't disruptive to the school's operations. At Boone, Uncapher says, the e-mail in question was both anonymous and sent directly to school officials, and therefore not disruptive.

(Unfortunately, says Jim Naureckas of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting's Extra! magazine, the newspaper's rights were superseded by a subsequent 1988 Supreme Court ruling that held that student newspapers are part of a school's curriculum and legally can be censored at will.)

Last month, McMillen relented, telling the paper's staff they could run the now-dated story so long as they removed any reference to the offending e-mail. She cited the 1974 Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, which requires federally funded educational institutions to prevent open disclosure of students' grades or behavioral records.

"She kept going on about the FERPA law and how even though we don't use his name, everyone will know who he is. She related it to ‘sexting' and how this kid was going to get made fun of and humiliated for this," says Uncapher. "Everyone thinks that he did the right thing and that Blocker has been doing the wrong thing. We say in the article that he shouldn't have used the language, but you're allowed to. He put it on the feedback section of the website that asks for feedback, so if they don't want feedback they should take it off."

OCPS disagrees. School board spokeswoman Kathy Marsh spoke with both McMillen and area supervisor James Lawson, the two allegedly behind the decision to censor the story. (The school board did not respond to this newspaper's repeated requests for records.) According to Marsh, the students' clinging to First Amendment rights is senseless idealism.

"They have all the same ideals that we did as young journalists," says Marsh, a former television journalist. Marsh reports that McMillen said "everyone in the school knew about what was going on," so the potential for disruption existed. Besides, she adds, "The principal is the final editor."

The school district has been here before. In November 2008, the editor of Edgewater High School's Eagle Eye battled principal Kenneth Iiames over a "negatively slanted" article on the school time change. That article eventually ran in January, after editor Chip Skambis complained to the Orlando Sentinel.

Boone newspaper advisor Renee Burke says that the whole issue has had a disheartening effect on her editors, students to whom she was trying to convey the virtues of First Amendment rights and investigative journalism. The back and forth between school officials and the students allegedly even resulted in school officials doctoring the offending student's record to indicate a less severe level-two referral after Burke had already seen its original level-three status. For Uncapher, the lesson learned is an opportunity lost.

"I don't want to be a journalist because of all of this," she says. "You do all this work and then people can just nix it like that and lie. I'm just going into business."

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