Nighthawk News editor presses Dare Schools to ease restrictions on student journalists

By on January 22, 2023

Olivia Sugg told the Board of Education that prior review infringes on student journalists’ rights.

Concerns over student press freedom in the Dare County Schools motivated a high school senior to speak during public comment at the Dare County Board of Education’s Jan. 9 meeting.

“Dare County Schools cannot expect to form civic-minded adults by infringing on our fundamental First Amendment right to freedom of the press,” said Olivia Sugg, an editor-in-chief of the First Flight High School (FFHS) news magazine, Nighthawk News.

Sugg hopes her appeal to Dare County school officials will lead to overturning a 17-year-old policy that allows individual school principals to edit, restrict or eliminate work by student journalists prior to publication. In the view of national student journalism organizations and First Amendment advocates, the policy undermines journalism education.

At the school board meeting, Sugg asserted that the change in policy “would be monumental for school publications in Dare County.”

DCS Superintendent Steve Basnight, in response to an inquiry from the Voice, indicated potential openness to reviewing the policy.

“I thought the Editor-in-Chief of FFHS’s Nighthawk News did an excellent job with her presentation to the Board and I am happy to look at the policy and her proposal,” Basnight said in an email.

At the Jan. 9 meeting, Sugg said she has attended journalism conferences “with some of the best student-run publications in the country,” adding that other student editors “were shocked” to learn of the prior review policy Dare County Schools (DCS) has in place—that “anything we publish must be reviewed by our principal, who has final authority on what can be printed.”

DCS regulations state that “Any decision by the faculty adviser or the principal to edit or restrict the style or content of school-sponsored publications shall be viewpoint neutral and reasonably related to a legitimate pedagogical concern.”

At the meeting, Sugg said that “Operating under this regulation causes many issues, as the ‘legitimate pedagogical concerns’ gives principals no real limit on what and how much can be censored. While First Flight Principal Chuck Lansing has been extremely cooperative with Nighthawk News, that is not the case with other journalism programs in Dare County, or with Nighthawk News in the past.”

She told board members that she emailed each of them a suggested replacement for the current policy—an “ideal district policy,” similar to what 16 states “and countless other counties” have.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which was widely seen as eroding student press freedom, 16 states have adopted laws to counteract that impact, according to the Student Press Law Center’s website. These laws establish freedom of speech and press protections for students who determine and generate their own content, thus eliminating prior review.

In states with no such law, school officials set their own district policies, which can either guarantee or restrict freedoms for student-run publications.

Robin Sawyer—a retired DCS journalism teacher and the National Journalism Teacher of the Year in 2000—taught and advised student newspaper and yearbook publications both before and after the 2005 Dare County Schools policy went into effect during the tenure of then-Superintendent Sue Burgess.

After the policy was instituted, Sawyer recalled her students traveling to a school board meeting in Hatteras, where they “made very passionate pleas about all the things that were wrong with this policy.” Sawyer added that the school board sent its attorney to spend a day in her classroom “to educate us on why this policy was important.” Instead, the attorney returned with recommendations to change the policy, which went from what Sawyer calls “insanely restrictive to what became a lighter-handed version of prior review.”

According to Sawyer, the new policy was less “authoritarian,” less “punitive” and encouraged the administration to work with student journalists. Still, having prior review at all sends the wrong message, she asserted.

“I believe that prior review is the most insidious form of censorship that is known to mankind, because what it does to kids is, it teaches them that adults don’t trust you; you’re not capable of being taught skills that show you right and wrong,” Sawyer said. “Hence you need adults to watch your every move to prevent you from making them look bad.”

Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel for the Student Press Law Center, which works to ensure the First Amendment rights of high school and college journalists, shares Sawyer’s perspective.

In an email to the Voice, Heistand said that it would be difficult to imagine a principal asking to approve a football coach’s playlist before each game or telling a chemistry teacher they shouldn’t follow best practices established by the American Association of Chemistry Teachers for teaching the periodic table.

“Sadly…they don’t seem to have that issue with respect to telling specifically trained journalism teachers about how to best teach journalism,” Hiestand said. “Allowing such interference by government officials is a horrible civics lesson to pass on to our next generation about the role and importance of a free and independent press.”

The largest professional association of journalism educators in the U.S.—the Journalism Education Association—also firmly stands against prior review, asserting that it “denounces the practice of administrative prior review as serving no legitimate educational purpose. Prior review leads only to censorship by school officials or to self-censorship by students with no improvement in journalistic quality or learning.”

Sawyer received a Lifetime Achievement award in 2016 from the Journalism Education Association, and the well-respected programs she established at FFHS have continued to flourish under her successor, Steve Hanf.

“First Flight’s scholastic journalism programs are the envy of the state and beyond,” Monica Hill, director of the North Carolina Scholastic Media Association, said in an email.

The number of school districts in the North Carolina that have prior review of student publications is not available because the policy can be either written or instituted by practice, something that makes it hard to track, Hill said.

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  • Just a mom

    I understand feeling controlled and undermined by ones elders as I once was a child. That’s the real issue here. The students writing for the school newspaper are children. The audience is mostly children. I think what might be better, so as to eliminate bias and hopefully ensure safety, is have a panel of 5 adults working in the school vote on the appropriate content and what might be better left unprinted until a future date when students and the audience they are writing to are all adults able to be accountable for their words and the weight words can carry.

    Sunday, Jan 22 @ 1:30 pm
  • Rosemary

    I applaud this effort on behalf of journalism students! First Flight’s Nighthawk Magazine is a treasure to Dare County and beyond. These students represent the future, and we need their unobstructed, unedited voices and perspectives.

    Sunday, Jan 22 @ 2:06 pm
  • Tom Jackson

    As a former college newspaper editor, as a former writer for a Dare County newspaper, as a fan of student newspapers, as husband to a Dare County girl, as a journalist, and college writing teacher, I must stand in full agreement with the Nighthawk and other school editors who will be the ones writing either truth or lies to voters and citizens of the near future. If ever we’ve needed openness and truth for the public, that time is now. I cringe at the garbage, “alternate facts”, and twisted propaganda I find in far too many of the few newspapers still publishing today. This issue goes far, far beyond Dare county, for on the soundness of public information rest the foundations of democracy. We should all do what we can to keep these foundations solid, level, and plumb. Teaching students to withhold or distort, or misrepresent facts is wrong in more than one way.

    I also would like to extend my admiration and applause to Olivia Sugg for her courage and integrity for bringing this issue (older than the printing press) before us all.

    Since my wife tells me Steve Basnight “was the best, most honest teacher ever,” I suspect he will apply good, common sense, academic integrity ,honesty, and journalistic excellence to this issue. I look forward to more good work from the Nighthawk and other Dare
    County student work.

    Tom Jackson

    Sunday, Jan 22 @ 2:19 pm
  • History

    This young person’s desire to actually be a journalist could have been the one thing that saved The Sentinel, had she gotten the chance.

    Sunday, Jan 22 @ 3:42 pm
  • Bill

    Just A Mom – Technically they are still “children” but they are fast becoming young Adults. They are much more responsible and intelligent than you give them credit for. Having panel of “adults” vote on content would be an even bigger insult to these young people. It’s as bad has “protecting” them from “undesirable” books by removing them from libraries. Give them a lot of credit and respect. They deserve it.

    Sunday, Jan 22 @ 7:15 pm
  • Jeff Walker

    Honestly this is the best education any young journalist can get. No matter where you go and who you write for, your work will be compromised and censored one way or another. School principals, advertisers, the corporate board of the investment firm that owns your paper, it really makes no difference whose capricious whims you’re subject to.

    Sunday, Jan 22 @ 10:29 pm
  • Czarina

    No doubt, the Board established the rule so they wouldn’t get phone calls. They don’t care about journalism or teaching of journalism.

    Monday, Jan 23 @ 9:03 am
  • Travis

    As if the press in this country is truly free. Take the Sinclair Broadcast Group, for example. One hundred ninety two stations. They reach almost 40% of America. The individual stations are frequently forced to air segments produced or written by the corporate news division. Sometimes anchors read from scripts prepared by the home office.

    The student reporters are just learning the facts of life: that they DO have to answer to someone and they WILL face editorial scrutiny and control if they want to continue as journalists.

    Now, there is oversight and there is oversight. A good editor/publisher will question your story, check your facts, ensure you have reliable sources, make sure there are no pesky issues like liable, and generally help you improve the article without subjecting it to their particular tastes or bias. Other news entities have an agenda and if your piece doesn’t fit with their world view, it likely gets 86’ed or modified to the point it is unrecognizable.

    Anyway, students shouldn’t have cart blanche to print any story they want without oversight as they likely won’t in the real world. Go start a blog if you want to have an unfettered voice.

    Monday, Jan 23 @ 2:57 pm
  • Just a mom

    Hey Bill, I responded to your comments/suggestion written directly to me… however the newspaper editor, aka Mark, decided it wasn’t his cup of tea or wasn’t something he wished the school board to read thus editing out my voice. So, there you have it the irony in focus:)

    Monday, Jan 23 @ 4:52 pm
  • Mark Jurkowitz | Outer Banks Voice

    So you understand Mom, you made a comment explaining your position and it was posted on the Voice. If you want to have a continuous back and forth debate with someone, feel free to use social media. The Voice comment page is not for continual back and forth.

    Monday, Jan 23 @ 5:22 pm
  • Hannah West

    Hats off to Olivia, I am so impressed by this young woman for her courage and integrity in delivering her comment before the board. And to the entire Nighthawk News staff & their adviser! I’m honored to be a Dare County Schools newspaper staff alum under Mrs. Sawyer, and former student of Mr. Basnight as well. DCS have such incredible, caring, hardworking teachers and staff and I hope that they BOE takes this into serious consideration.

    Tuesday, Jan 24 @ 12:15 pm
  • Cam

    I don’t think this has to be either NO supervision or ONEROUS supervision as a binary choice but I do think the right to deny minor students to publish a newspaper with taxpayer dollars and say anything they want to is no right at all.
    As an example…the Board and the State might outlaw the teaching of Critical Race Theory.
    It is then folly to allow the students themselves to teach or advocate it AND distribute it through the school….though they may do so on their own as groups or individual students as citizens outside of school or social media and with their parents permission. (This is only an example…could be applied to various subjects).
    Surely prior review is necessary but there should be guidelines for the “censor” and an appeal process to a small committee for instances where further clarity is needed.

    Saturday, Jan 28 @ 1:30 pm