A pair of Utah students had a pretty big story ready to roll for their high school newspaper.
Conor Spahr — an 18-year-old senior at Herriman High School — dug for information over the course of six weeks and then wrote an investigative piece about a teacher allegedly fired for inappropriate texts to a female student. The paper's editor in chief, 17-year-old Max Gordon, edited the story.
The pair told the Washington Post they had the Herriman Telegraph's faculty adviser, as well as school Vice Principal Richard Price, look at the article. There were suggested tweaks to the piece, but no inaccuracies were pointed out, the Post said — and the story was published Jan. 18.
Image source: KUTV-TV video screenshot
Then suddenly, it wasn't. In fact, the whole newspaper was gone.
The next day Gordon said he and other editors noticed the Telegraph's website — which the school controls and owns — was down, along with its social media accounts, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.
The site eventually went back up, but the article about the teacher was gone — and student staffers' administrative privileges were nixed, Gordon added to the Tribune.
“[The district] didn’t like our story, they didn’t like us putting the news out there, and we weren’t shedding them in the most positive light,” Gordon told KUTV-TV. “They just decided to shut us down.”
Image source: KUTV-TV video screenshot
He added to the Tribune: “We can’t change anything. Now it’s completely run by the administration.”
How did Gordon and Spahr fight back?
Simply put, they created their own newspaper website — the Herriman Telegram.
They bought a domain for about $34, the Post said, and got the new site up with the slogan: “Student Run. No Censorship.” And they republished their story Sunday.
“We stand by everything," Gordon told KUTV, "and since the article came out we’ve had even more sources come to us."
A reporter talks to Gordon (center) and Conor Spahr (right). (Image source: KUTV-TV video screenshot)
Students also launched an online petition, the Tribune reported, asking that student editors of school paper get their privileges restored.
“We want to actually do our job as a publication and write stories that people care about,” Gordon added to the Tribune. “We can’t do that with the Telegraph when anything even slightly controversial is censored.”
What did the district say?
Sandra Riesgraf, spokeswoman for Jordan School District, told the Tribune that the changes to the newspaper's website were needed to make certain of accuracy and appropriateness.
“We are the publisher of that newspaper, and because of that we have to watch out for students,” Riesgraf added to the Tribune. “I think they know, legally, that there’s got to be some oversight of that newspaper."
Vice Principal Price — whom Gordon and Spahr said reviewed their original piece — did not respond to a request for comment, the Post reported.
How did other officials react?
Police and the State Board of Education were investigating the teacher after a complaint from a parent, the Post said, citing local news reports.
The Utah chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists released the following statement, KUTV said:
The Utah Headliners chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists supports the right of the Herriman Telegraph staff to report and write on topics important to their readership, the students of Herriman High School. 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.
The new movie “The Post” memorably quotes Justice Hugo Black’s words in the New York Times v. Sullivan case: “The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.” The Jordan School District should take those words to heart and allow the Herriman Telegraph to publish.
What's happening now?
The story about the teacher's firing began as a local and regional issue after it was first published in the school newspaper — but since it was scrubbed and then republished on Gordon and Spahr's own site, the story has gone national.
More on the investigative piece via the Tribune:
In their article for the school newspaper, Gordon and Spahr included documents obtained through public records requests from Jordan School District and Providence Hall, a charter school where the teacher previously worked. The Providence Hall documents showed the teacher’s employment at that school ended in the middle of an academic year, as it did at Herriman High.
No cause for his termination at Providence Hall is included in the documents obtained by Gordon and Spahr. But a code of conduct form included in the teacher’s exit papers inexplicably included highlighted portions related to one-on-one meetings with minor students and the need for more than one adult to be present during extra-curricular activities.
And the new site, the Herriman Telegram, could end up being a long-term venture, Spahr and Gordon told the Post, adding that they've even been taking applications from students at neighboring schools to write for the site.
“We’ve gotten really energized from the outpouring of support from our community,” Spahr told the Post. “So I think we’re going to be following up on more hard hitting stories in the future."