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Needless Trouble in Arkansas

I love the movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” And of course, the character of Principal Ed Rooney is just priceless. But as fond as I am of the Rooney character,  I hate it when real life principals act like that. And, Paul Griep, the principal of Har-Ber High School in Springdale, Arkansas is acting in a Rooney like fashion. And it’s over a football team and a student newspaper.

Here’s a pretty good account of the situation. But this will summarize things. At the end of the fall semester of 2017, six Har-Ber varsity football players transferred to arch-rival Springdale High School. This mass exodus may have violated the District’s rules about transfers, and some enterprising student journalists investigated. In at least several instances, their suspicions were confirmed.

Mr. Rooney Griep got wind of the story and asked to review it before it got published. To her credit, the paper’s faculty adviser refused the request. When the article and an accompanying editorial ran, things really hit the fan. The District Superintendent, Jim Rollins, demanded the article and editorial immediately be taken down from the paper’s website. Principal Griep got in on the act by demanding the paper establish protocols whereby the school administration review all student publications before publication. He threatened to fire the faculty advisor if she failed to comply.

The thing that’s so maddening about this is that no one is suggesting the reporting is in any way inaccurate. The reason for shutting down the article is because it was “intentionally negative, demeaning, derogatory, hurtful and potentially harmful to the students addressed in those articles.” That’s a debatable point as a matter of fact, but it’s irrelevant even if true. Facts are facts. And if the District looked the other way when its transfer policies were being violated, that’s news.

Principal Griep insists he wasn’t trying to censor the student paper. He just wanted to “review the document and to ensure accuracy in the content.” Of course some people, like me for instance, would contend that his description is pretty much the very definition of censorship.

The problem here is that, based on some U.S. Supreme Court rulings on student speech, these administrators may actually get away with this. Which is mind boggling. But what is more mind boggling is the notion that a school administration could manage to take a relatively inconsequential local story and bring on national attention. Maybe Principal Griep and Superintendent Rollins should attend a Civics class at Har-Ber. If so, they’d be celebrating these student journalists instead of muzzling them.