School paper fights for rights amidst censorship

Springdale High School and Har-Ber High School officially split in 2005 because of the rapid growth in the Springdale school district. For over a decade, the two schools have been entrenched in an intense rivalry, especially in their athletic programs. In 2017, when five students in the athletic programs at Har-Ber transferred to the rival school, the Har-Ber Herald staff started asking questions, but they never could have anticipated the push back they received from the Springdale School District administration in return.

At the end of football season in 2017, Har-Ber students, faculty and staff were gravely disappointed by the team’s performance. In the midst of her own disappointment, sports enthusiast and Har-Ber Herald editor-in-chief Halle Roberts, 17, said that she remembered some of the school’s best football players transferring in the middle of the year. However, the Herald staff was not large enough at that time to launch an investigation. At the beginning of 2018, however, Roberts and other reporters saw a video of “the father of one of the transfer students at a bonfire party celebrating the end of football season by burning Har-Ber school gear and yelling about the football coach of Har-Ber,” according to BuzzFeed, so the Herald staff decided to look into the potential discrepancies in transferring.

Jack Williams, 17, reporter for the Herald, said, “The whole school caught wind of it really fast. They were some of the best football players. It really kind of caught us by surprise that they were going to Springdale because they had played for us for so long. Quite a few of them said they were transferring for athletic purposes nonchalantly.”

Their investigation lined up with suspicion, and several students involved in athletics had transferred schools without meeting the criteria to do so—one of whom now plays for Springdale and scored the winning touchdown in a game against Har-Ber, according to the Student Press Law Center.

On Oct. 30, the Herald published a story detailing the investigation, and Springdale Public Schools district officials ordered the students to remove the story from the school website and suspended the publication until further notice. Karla Sprague, the adviser of the Har-Ber Herald, received a note from the school principal Paul Griep who threatened that, if Sprague did not adhere to all regulations and his new prior review policy, it could “result in disciplinary action … including recommendation for termination of employment,” according to the SPLC.

On Dec. 1, 2018, BuzzFeed News published an article detailing the uproar behind Har-Ber’s investigative report about their transferring students. The administration at Har-Ber had suspended the newspaper, threatened to fire the teacher who advises the paper and told the executive editor of the Herald Halle Roberts, 17, “Well you raised an uproar, we’re going to try and silence you,” according to the initial report.

Roberts said she never had any doubt that the staff needed to publish the story, even though she knew there would be backlash. “Some of it was expected. I think we all thought they would release a statement saying, ‘Sorry we did something wrong,’ or ask us to fix quotes. But it caused such an uproar. That was surprising.”

I was pretty gobsmacked. I had always heard about censorship in urban legends. I was like, this is really how this happens? This is high school football,” Williams said. “The moment I realized they were going to take the stance they were taking, it made me want to pursue it even more. If there wasn’t some foul play going on, they wouldn’t have done what they did. If there is nothing bad going on here, then why are you taking such strides to take away our liberties? This is the truth. No one disputed it.”

“There’s a possibility. I do believe that the political climate gave them a safety net to step on our liberties,” Williams said.

Roberts said she thinks the negative commentary surrounding the media contributed to the severity of the school’s response. “My career goal after college is to write for ESPN. There’s not a lot of controversy, but at the same time, I want to chase after the truth and after stories. Going through this makes me want to pursue that even more because I know there is corruption in the world that tries to silence people when there’s a need for the truth to be out.”

“I’ve learned that the administration is very afraid of their students, and if they’re going to facilitate a student newspaper or any other entity that is hell-bent on narrating the truth, and they are openly afraid of the truth coming out, then they shouldn’t have done what they did in the first place,” Williams said.

“This has only made me want to pursue journalism even more. I always knew there would be a certain point in my career where I had to be at odds with the powers that be, but the fact that I am meeting it this early over something this benign makes me realize this is going to happen a lot more than I really intended. It will be my job in my journalistic career to put a stop to it, because it isn’t right,” Williams said. ​

“We’re still fighting censorship right now and prior review. We have to send our papers to our school principle, Dr. Griep,” Roberts said. But The Herald is “trying to fight that, too. We don’t believe in it. It makes everything so difficult to have all our stories done to the extent they need to be to provide the truth and everything that needs to be researched in time for someone else to look at it.”

Sprague directed questions to her lawyer, but did say she is proud of all of her students and thankful for them to have the opportunity to share.