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The New England First Amendment Coalition salutes the staff of The Mercury, a student-run high school newspaper at Bellows Free Academy-St. Albans (Vt.), for recently helping its local school board update the district’s student expression policy.
NEFAC, along with the Vermont Press Association, served as a consultant to the staff and testified earlier this month in favor of the students’ proposed revisions.
The students’ “research and work on the Vermont law was just as if they had been professional journalists,” said NEFAC’s Michael Donoghue, who spoke on behalf of the coalition and VPA during a June 5 Maple Run Unified School District Board meeting. “It was their research and a subsequent meeting with some key officials that has led to the new draft tonight.”
Donoghue’s full prepared remarks can be read here.
The board voted unanimously to adopt the revised policy that betters ensures First Amendment protections for students and faculty. The policy now mirrors the so-called “New Voices” legislation — a nationwide initiative — that became Vermont law in 2017. NEFAC is one of several organizations that spent more than a year advocating for such protections at high schools and colleges in Vermont.
The Maple Run School District, located in Franklin County about 30 miles north of Burlington, had adopted an initial policy designed to address student freedom of expression concerns during the Christmas vacation break in December.
After classes resumed, The Mercury newspaper staff, led by student co-editors Julia Scott and Haley Seymour, later found there were troubling inconsistencies between the requirements under the new Vermont law and the expectations from the recently approved school district policy.
Donoghue, NEFAC’s first vice president and executive director of the Vermont Press Association, was invited to meet with the editors and staff of the student newspaper. He concurred that the new policy added potential censorship provisions and had deleted First Amendment protections for the students and faculty. Following the meeting, the Mercury editors, along with journalism teacher Peter Riegelman, made their concerns known to key school board members and district officials.
A revised policy that follows state law was introduced during a school board meeting May 14 with Scott and Riegelman providing comments. The board voted 9-0 to approve the new policy when it was presented for final review earlier this month. The unanimous vote brought a spontaneous round of applause from the room.
NEFAC is the region’s leading advocate for the First Amendment and the public’s right to know about government.
In Vermont, NEFAC recently supported an effort to unseal a court decision addressing the state’s shield law, argued for free access to police body camera footage, provided guidance to the state Supreme Court on its new online record system, opposed limits on media access and camera use in state courtrooms, defended the rights of student journalists, and provided civics education as part of its First Amendment and the Free Press program.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
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Major Supporters of NEFAC include Hearst Connecticut Media Group, the Barr Foundation, The Boston Globe, WBUR and Boston University.