Stand Up for Your Right
By Caroline Zaayer
When Laurie Elliott, the principal of Dayton High School in Dayton, Texas, decided an editorial in the school's newspaper was unacceptable and pulled the paper off the stands in September, Editor in Chief Bana Varnon decided to fight back.
Zaayer is a former AJR editorial assistant.
The 17-year-old senior wrote the offending editorial, which said city funds should be used to repair the roads around the school. Two weeks after the editorial ran, the principal cleared the Bronco Beat from the racks, took the editorial off the Web site and threatened to shut the paper down.
Although that issue never returned to the stands, Varnon researched and wrote about students' First Amendment rights, including the Supreme Court decisions that protect individual student expression and grant school officials the power to censor publications when they are a hindrance to education. Varnon gained some media attention and won a David S. Barr award, which included a $500 scholarship, from the Newspaper Guild-
Communication Workers of America.
AJR's Caroline Zaayer caught up with Varnon recently in a telephone interview.
Q: What reason did the principal give for not accepting your editorial?
A: They have a policy..that says they can pull any kind of school publication if it would substantially interfere with the work of the school. She said that editorial took a political side, which interferes with the work of the school. I don't think it does.
Q: After the principal pulled the papers off the stands, what did you do?
A: We had no idea about student rights or anything, but we just said, "She can't do this; there's no way she can do this." I started researching, and I found out about the Hazelwood and Kuhlmeier case [the 1988 Supreme Court decision that determined public high school newspapers do not necessarily have the same First Amendment rights as other publications]. So the very next issue I wrote an entire page about freedom of the press, on what school officials can and cannot limit. We found out that she cannot confiscate papers after they've already been on the stand. Before [the issue about freedom of the press was] printed, she said, "Well, I don't really want you to print this because it parallels the situation too closely." But she said it was my option, so I opted to print it anyway.
Q: Once she pulled it, did you decide immediately to do something?
A: Oh yes, because it made me mad.... We got local press involved, and there were stories about it. I think she found out that she can't do something like that.
Q: What did you learn from this?
A: Definitely never back down when someone tells you that they don't have to explain themselves to you or that they have more authority and more power than you. Never back down. Never stop fighting for what you believe in.
Q: Have you been more cautious with the things you have written since this?
A: I've actually been a little bit more bold just to see how far we can go. This next issue, we're writing about abortion and teen sexuality and just some really controversial issues.
Q: What do you plan to do after you graduate?
A: I'm going to attend the University of Texas at Austin, and I'm going to major in biology. No, not really. I'm going to major in journalism... I'm really looking forward to college journalism, where I won't have to worry about so many restrictions and stepping on so many toes. ###