I spent my Wednesday morning at the Northeastern Wisconsin Scholastic Press Association convention, teaching high school students how to write effective headlines for their publications. I spent the night teaching high school administrators and school board members why censoring and prior review are bad things. If I had to bet on where I was more effective, I’d put my money on the kids, even though I certainly hope not.
In both environments was Brock Doemel, a senior at Oshkosh North High School, who writes for the school’s publication, the North Star. Doemel found himself in hot water when he had the temerity to publish a factually accurate story on the paper’s website about the resignation of an administrator at his school. Assistant Principal Hans Nelson’s office was empty for two weeks and Nelson was nowhere to be found. Eventually, the district released a happy-time note indicating that Nelson was graciously moving to a position at another school teaching special education.
Doemel, however, got a source to confirm to him that Nelson had been placed on a two-week suspension after he locked off all the bathrooms in the school and lied about it to administrators. A legal threat led to an agreement to land Nelson elsewhere, Doemel said in an interview Wednesday morning.
The story spent about 20 minutes on the website before officials had it yanked down, claiming that this somehow violated privacy rules:
Oshkosh schools superintendent Vickie Cartwright says the article breached Nelson’s privacy and violated the district’s policy.
“Anytime that you’re dealing with any types of things that would infringe upon the rights of others, as a public employee, I do have to implement anything and put in protections for those individuals,” Dr. Cartwright said.
Doemel explained in our interview that Principal Jacquelyn Kiffmeyer wasn’t even that clear about the reason for pulling down the story.
“I’m not even sure how she saw it so fast,” Doemel said. “She had it pulled down in less than 20 minutes. She said it was a ‘legal issue’ for anything to go on the website like that before the issue was settled. She didn’t even explain anything else.”
What Kiffmeyer did instead was require the North Star to post an unedited letter she wrote on its website that refuted the story that is no longer available. In the letter, she stated that it was removed due to “inaccurate and unverifiable content” and that the story “did not include credible information or sources.”
She also began harassing Doemel to give up his source. He said Kiffmeyer pulled him out of multiple classes over a week’s time to demand information about his source. He estimates this cost him about seven total hours of education.
“She requested my working notes,” he said. “I refused to identify the source… My mom works at the middle school and at one point they called the middle school’s principal and accused him of being the source.” (UPDATE NOTE: The principal talked to Brock late Thursday and wanted to clarify that the call made to him regarding the story was not accusatory, but instead a call from a friend at central office to let him know that the district was looking into him as a possible source.)
The situation got increasingly intense, Doemel said, noting that “it felt like I was guilty of a national security crime.” Some of the questions were intent on pinning down potential sources, such as “Is this person an administrator?” and “Is this source a man or a woman?” Doemel said other questions felt vague and threatening, such as “Brock, do you have a sister?”
“At one point, she placed her hands on the desk and leaned toward me,” Doemel said, mimicking the action. ” She said, ‘Sooner or later Brock, you’re going to tell me who your source was.'”
(INTERESTING SIDE NOTE: The whole point of this story being pulled down, according to Kiffmeyer’s own letter, was that the source wasn’t credible, and yet Kiffmeyer doesn’t know who the source is. Furthermore, nothing she said in any of those meetings, according to what Doemel told me, or in that letter explains WHAT was inaccurate or HOW it was wrong.)
Instead of giving up his source, Doemel and fellow North Star staffer Tess Fitzhenry filed an open-records request with the district to find out what happened to Nelson. What they received was a response letter unlike anything I’ve ever seen:
The law allows for fees to be used to recoup costs associated with record copying and such, although such fees are often used as a way of limiting access to documents. In this case, the students had a financial backer who agreed to cover whatever the cost was. That said, I’d bet my house on the fact that if the students had requested a similar number of records that revealed every good-time happy moment that happened in the district, the fee would have been waived.
The bigger issue was the requirement in the second response paragraph. Doemel said administrators had previously demanded the North Star’s passwords and logins and had also searched adviser Jason Cummings’ computer for information on this story. This letter essentially plays an illegal game of quid pro quo: Give us your information and we’ll fulfill the request.
“The Wisconsin Open Records law is not a bargaining chip,” SPLC’s Senior Legal Counsel Mike Hiestand told me in an email. “It is the law. They can’t withhold public records until the students turn over passwords — or whatever other demands they’re making.”
The students, who were working with Hiestand on this request, sent back a response in mid-March, noting that they were fine paying the costs, they want the records and they won’t turn over anything to make this happen. The students didn’t hear back until Wednesday morning with essentially more of the same:
Again, in case you’re not clear on the law, this approach is illegal. If the records are public and someone makes a request for them, you have to turn them over. You can’t hang caveats on these responses, aside from copying costs or other legal matters, such as notification issues, which this letter does note. I was willing to prove that point by filing my own request, paying the exact amount in advance and seeing what would happen next. Doemel called the district office while we were all at this journalism convention Wednesday and asked, point blank, if the release of the records was contingent upon the release of the passwords. Cartwright said no, something she reiterated at the board’s listening session Wednesday night.
“Brock, I do want to make it very clear, we have every intention of processing your request, the only element that is missing, at this point in time, is the financial commitment for the request,” she said.
What remains, however, are several pressing issues:
- The story is still censored.
- The students are locked out of their ability to post content without administrative approval (in other words, they’re operating under prior review and prior restraint).
- Doemel said anything he writes has been embargoed and must go through a specific administrative review.
- The district is operating under a draconian policy that governs student media, something that was passed a few years back without anyone in the student media area really noticing. In the decades prior to that, the North Star operated under the doctrine of open public forum.
- Cummings is still in trouble and Doemel said the students fear for his job.
Doemel said he doesn’t want to create serious problems at the school or be a thorn in the side of the district. All he wants is to be able to do his job.
“I would want all our writers to be able to go back to the way it was,” he said. ” I want them to let us do (the North Star) without school censoring… I want Jason’s job to be safe. I want a free student press at our school.”
HERE’S HOW YOU CAN HELP:
This is Oshkosh North Principal Jacquelyn Kiffmeyer. You can email her at:
and tell her if you dislike the censorship of student journalists, if you are concerned about the tone she took in trying to get a journalist to reveal his source or if you want the this situation resolved in a way that protects journalistic principles and the job of the adviser.
This is Oshkosh Superintendent Vickie Cartwright. You can email her at:
and tell her if you want to see the North Star return to the days of no prior review or prior restraint, if you want to see important stories and if you support the rights of student journalists. You might also encourage her to work with the board to undo the policies implemented in the 2015-16 era that undercut student press rights.
This is Barbara Herzog, the school board president. You can email her at:
Herzog noted in the listening session that policies like the one done to undermine student press rights can be reviewed and revised through the board. Someone just has to bring it up to the board and a board member has to take it to the policy and governance committee. From there, if it passes it goes to the whole board. Feel free to email her if you would like her to know that you want this to happen, that the policies are in need of revision and that the school district needs an open public forum for all of its publications.
Finally, you can reach the staffers of the North Star via their website. You can also post some positive thoughts on their Facebook page here or reach out via Twitter (they only have nine followers, so maybe we can help them get a boost, too).
Let these folks know they’re not alone, that you support their rights and that you have their back. One of the things I have seen over the years in terms of “admin vs. student pub” battles is that the districts often win when they make the students feel scared, isolated and weak. When the kids win, it’s because they feel like pros, profs and other folks interested in free press have their back.
Help if you can.