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Inside a Student Newspaper’s Battle Against Censorship

After facing publication pushback from school officials, young Vancouver journalists want a Student Press Freedom Act in BC.

Katie Hyslop 3 Mar

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach them here.

Two Vancouver student journalists are upset with the who, what, where, when, why and how of covering news in B.C. and are working to change the story around freedom of the press.

With many media outlets stretched thin on resources in recent years, student-run publications can sometimes be the only source covering a story — and are often the only media reporting news from a youth perspective.

Unlike the professional press corps, however, student press freedom is not enshrined in provincial or federal law. That means school districts and administrators are well within their legal rights to censor stories they feel are controversial, unfair or make them look bad.

But two teenagers at Eric Hamber Secondary School in Vancouver, home to the Griffins’ Nest student newspaper, want to change that.

With the help of pro bono lawyers and freedom-of-information advocates, 17-year-olds Spencer Izen and Jessica Kim have drafted a “Student Press Freedom Act” for British Columbia.

Hoping to have it passed into law by their graduation this June, the students sent an open letter and a draft of the act itself to B.C. Attorney General David Eby on Feb. 18 to jumpstart discussions.

“Because this attorney general does have that civil liberties background, and because this is very easy legislation to get behind, we’re confident that it will pass,” Izen said, referring to Eby’s past position as executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association.

So far, the act has been endorsed by the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, the Canadian Association of Journalists, Canadian University Press, the Student Press Law Center, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the BC Youth Council, to name a few.

In addition, the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association nominated Kim and Izen for the Peter Bryce Prize for Whistleblowing from the Ryerson University Centre for Free Expression in recognition of their work.

Izen and Kim’s journey from newspaper editorial team members to legislation drafters has a lot to do with the BCCLA. It was the first organization the Griffins’ Nest called in spring 2021 when Eric Hamber’s administration attempted to censor an article critical of the school district.

It wasn’t the first time that editor-in-chief Izen, managing editor Kim and their Griffins’ Nest colleagues felt stifled by their school administration. And according to Kim and Izen, the censorship did not stop at the principal’s office, but eventually came from the school district itself.

‘The article needs the principal’s blessing’

Pushback from the Eric Hamber administration started in October 2020, when the students say their principal Marea Jensen told them not to create a website for the newspaper because “once it’s out there, it’s out there.”

Izen believes that Jensen’s intent was to ensure the news was “kept within the school and couldn’t be published outside,” he said, adding that staying in print actually boosted their school readership, increasing to 850 copies by December 2021 from 450 the year before.

The students ended up building a website anyway in August 2021.

Prior to publication of their December 2020 issue, Eric Hamber vice-principal Dale Ambrose told the students he was uncomfortable with the newspaper publishing a statement decrying QAnon as false because it might offend parents who believe in QAnon.

Ambrose was also concerned by criticism of the school district published in the February 2021 issue, as he felt that it appeared as though Eric Hamber administration was endorsing criticism of the district.

In both cases, students were able to move forward with publication. But it was what happened with the May 2021 issue that led to their call to the BCCLA, the Canadian Youth Journalism Project and the Canadian Association of Journalists.

“We had written something on [Vancouver School Board] decision-making as a whole. It wasn’t particularly complimentary. We interviewed over 100 students from the district [and] a dozen teachers,” said Kim.

The paper sent a request for comment to the district’s communications team, which the students believe was then forwarded to Eric Hamber’s principal Jensen.

“That’s when our vice-principal told Spencer, ‘The article needs the principal’s blessing.’ And that’s when we went to the BCCLA for the first time,” Kim said.

The Tyee requested comment from Jensen, Ambrose and Pino Scaglione, teacher sponsor for the Griffins’ Nest, which is a student club. Jensen and Ambrose responded by directing us to the Vancouver School Board communications staff. Kim and Izen say letters from the BCCLA media lawyer and Ryerson University journalism professor Lisa Taylor outlining the students’ free speech rights led to their principal backing off. The uncensored issue was published in June 2021.

The experience inspired Izen and Kim to contact Attorney General Eby to relay the attempted censorship. But after realizing they weren’t the first student journalists to face censorship — and that it could happen again — the idea snowballed into creating a Student Press Freedom Act, modelled on what some student journalists in the U.S. have achieved.

“It was basically the irritation of no one recognizing our expressive press rights in schools that drove us to look at what the U.S. did, and Student Press Law Center did, and [we thought], ‘You know what? Why don’t we just make one for British Columbia?’” Izen said.

As with mainstream journalism, the act does limit student press freedom in cases where content published is libelous, discriminatory, illegal or harmful, to name just a few of the restrictions.

Although Izen and Kim drafted the act on their own, several lawyers, academics and freedom-of-information enthusiasts reviewed it and offered their critiques, free of charge. They include Tamir Israel, staff lawyer with the Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic; Darrell Evans, founding president of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association; the BCCLA; the Canadian Association of Journalists; and Izen’s grandfather, a retired lawyer.

“This is really interesting: some young people taking interest in our issues,” said Evans, also the founder of the Canadian Institute for Information and Privacy Studies.

“I’ve despaired over young people not taking up freedom-of-information issues and freedom-of-expression issues, internet freedom. I know they believe in it, but the activism is lacking among young people. So I was delighted to hear about this.”

Freedom to file FOIs?

The relationship between the Griffins’ Nest and the Eric Hamber administration has greatly improved since last June. Kim and Izen describe principal Jensen and vice-principal Ambrose as respectful and supportive of the newspaper.

But the school district is pushing back on the student journalists, particularly when it comes to filing requests under B.C.’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

In August 2021, the students filed a freedom of information request with the district seeking information about the Vancouver Learning Network, the district’s online school. The district quoted them a $220 fee and denied the students’ request to have it waived because they are journalists.

The students appealed the decision that fall, but they didn’t realize that B.C. laws granted the district 20 days to respond. So when they hadn’t heard back from the district after a week, the Griffins’ Nest sent a letter to school board trustees saying the district’s FOI office was violating their rights.

In response, the team received a written offer from J. David Green, the district’s secretary-treasurer, to assist with their information needs.

But Kim and Izen said resulting meetings were unproductive.

The first meeting on Oct. 5 with Alison Ogden, a district director of instruction educational services, teacher sponsor Scaglione, vice-principal Ambrose and principal Jensen took place with three hours’ notice for the four Griffins’ Nest students who took part.

During the meeting, Izen and Kim allege that Ogden repeatedly asked why the students were filing freedom-of-information requests with the district.

“There was a fair amount of discouragement from filing FOI requests as a whole,” Kim said, adding that Ogden told them by filing the requests, they were taking away from other students’ education because district staff had to stop work to fulfil their requests.

Ogden also allegedly insisted that Scaglione or school administration screen every communication the students produced — from emails, to FOI requests, to articles and even social media posts. The students did not agree, citing their editorial independence.

“It ended with me just saying, ‘Thank you for coming and we just would like to have our charter rights respected.’ And she went, ‘Of course,’ and that was it,” Izen said.

Ogden sent a followup letter to the students two days later, repeating her assertion any communication the students issued should be vetted by school authorities.

“As we discussed in the meeting, this is not about censorship but about ensuring that the people who are ultimately responsible for what goes on with the student club, are aware of what is going on and can provide guidance and support to ensure that your work on the school newspaper continues to be a rich learning opportunity,” Ogden’s letter read.

Since the Griffins’ Nest was established in 2012, both Scaglione and vice-principal Ambrose have received drafts of the paper 48 hours before publication. The only exception is the web-exclusive articles the students produce. Izen and Kim also emphasized the rigorousness of their editorial process, including having all editorial board members read an article before publication; ensuring every editorial team member has a Newsroom Readiness Certificate from the Poynter Institute, a free online course that covers the basics of media law, ethics and newsgathering practices; and emphasizing the importance of transparency regarding their reporting tactics in the articles published.

However, the pre-review by school administration isn’t the same as granting censorship power over the publication, which is what the students felt Ogden was asking for.

‘Students are not respected as citizens’

That fall, the Griffins’ Nest had been working on an investigation into the Vancouver Learning Network. In November, the students filed another FOI request with the district, and requested information via the district communications department.

A few days later, the students received an email from their teacher sponsor asking if they had filed another FOI request with the district. He told the students that principal Jensen, who the students had not informed about the request, had told him about the request.

It is not illegal for a school district to reveal to a principal that their students have filed an FOI request, Evans said. But that doesn’t make it ethical, he said.

“An FOI request is an FOI request; it doesn’t matter who it comes from. They need to be treated with respect,” he said. “Students are not respected as citizens.”

Scaglione told the students that Ogden had requested to meet with them again in two days.

“That’s when the alarm bells started going off, like, ‘Uh-oh, what does she want to see us about? Is it about our FOIs?’ And I think it was fair to assume in the situation we were in, it was about that,” Izen said.

Forty-five minutes before the meeting, Izen, Kim and another colleague from the Griffins’ Nest learned that Vancouver Learning Network principal Jim Rutley would be present. It wasn’t until the beginning of the meeting — which saw the students, Scaglione and Ambrose gathered in a classroom and Ogden, Rutley and another district director of instruction, Chris Wong, attending virtually — that the students found out why they were all there.

“Ms. Ogden said, ‘They’re here to answer your questions that you sent.’ And we’re like, ‘What?’” Izen said, referencing the questions the students had sent to the communications department about the Vancouver Learning Network.

“Which we were really surprised about, because we didn’t know if that was something a real journalist would experience: an interview set up by someone without their knowledge beforehand.”

Their lack of experience wasn’t the only reason they felt uncomfortable, Kim said.

“What comes along with the doubt, not only just being student journalists and being fully self-taught, [is that] these people are in a position of authority over us,” she said.

Unprepared and uncomfortable interviewing Rutley in front of district officials, the students declined. Rutley and Wong left the meeting at that point, leaving the students to question Ogden about who told their principal about the FOI request. They also informed her the revelation made them feel the need to contact the BCCLA again.

That’s when, Izen and Kim allege, Ogden cut the conversation short.

“It was a rude tone,” Izen said of Ogden’s response. “It was a bit of word twisting: ‘If you don’t want our support in this and you don’t want any help, that’s fine.’” The meeting ended there. And like the first meeting, Izen and Kim said the encounter left them shaken up.

While the paper’s feature on the Vancouver Learning Network was published on Dec. 19, 2021, the FOI requests were not fulfilled until Feb. 10, 2022.

‘Our trust will be hard to regain’

While interactions with the district had remained mostly quiet since November, the students’ hackles were raised again earlier this month when the district communications department emailed the Griffins’ Nest to take issue with its critical coverage of its public consultations on changes to the Multi-Age Cluster Class program.

In its email, the district indicated it was providing a URL to a study that proved the paper’s coverage had been incorrect. But when the students clicked on the link, it took them to a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization report on fake news.

Although communications staff apologized and said the link was sent in error, the students interpreted the action as commentary on the Griffins’ Nest.

The Griffins’ Nest stands by their reporting, and has yet to face any accusations of libel from any party, including the school district. However the students told The Tyee if the publication were to face such an allegation or threat of lawsuit for their publication — as many publications do, regardless of the integrity of their reporting — they are not entirely sure who would ultimately be held responsible: the students, their families, the school or the school district.

The Tyee contacted the Vancouver School Board’s communication’s department with an interview request for Ogden on Feb. 8, laying out every allegation Izen and Kim made about the district and their school administration. We provided a deadline of Feb. 11 but agreed to a request from the district to extend the deadline to Feb. 17.

On that date, Ogden was not made available for an interview. District communications staff sent an emailed response instead.

“The district acknowledges the ambition, dedication and commitment the Griffins’ Nest students have towards journalism,” the statement read, adding that they agree the Charter of Rights and Freedoms grants students the right to express themselves in school.

“As a learning organization, staff endeavour to be supportive of their inquiries and to respond to their requests for information.”

The statement didn’t comment on the initial meeting the students had with Ogden in October 2021 but confirmed the second meeting occurred. It was intended to provide the students with more information about the Vancouver Learning Network, the statement said.

“Unfortunately, the intent of the meeting was not communicated clearly. While the goal was to respond to the Griffins’ Nest request, the district recognizes having the presence of district leadership staff without students knowing the purpose of the meeting caused the students to feel uncomfortable,” it said.

Staff also confirmed the “clerical error” that led to the fake news document being shared with the students, as well as the followup apology.

“The district is committed to creating safe and caring schools that foster inclusive, equitable and welcoming school environments and want to ensure students involved in the Hamber student newspaper are supported in their work.”

On Feb. 11, Izen and Kim say principal Jensen contacted their parents to arrange a meeting between them and Rob Schindel, the district’s associate superintendent of educational services. Initially the district wanted to meet with the students separately, but Izen and Kim insisted they meet together.

The meeting, which took place on Feb. 15, did not go well in the students’ opinion, with Izen and Kim saying it felt “disingenuous” to them.

“We told them, ‘The only reason that this is coming up is because outside reporters are looking into it,’” Izen said. “Their conduct makes it embarrassing to be a student in the Vancouver school district.”

In its emailed statement to The Tyee, the district acknowledged the meeting took place but would not comment on what happened.

“The district takes the concerns of students you brought to our attention very seriously and has followed up with the students and their parents directly to address these concerns,” the statement read.

“As with any matter involving students, we will not be providing any further information in regard to these conversations to the media.”

However, after Schindel sent a followup letter to the students on Feb. 17 articulating and acknowledging the students’ concerns, Izen and Kim said they felt heard.

“If this letter and apology represents the beginning of a new era, we skeptically welcome it. But the key word is ‘skeptically,’ and as much as we would want to believe our school board has our best interest at heart, that has never been made apparent to us at the district level,” Kim and Izen told The Tyee via email.

“Our trust will be hard to regain, regardless of our objective reporting.”  [Tyee]

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