As It Happens

Teen reporters go rogue after Utah high school shuts down exposé about teacher

Students from a high school newspaper in Utah are accusing administrators of censorship after their big scoop was spiked.
Conor Spahr, right, and Max Gordon get interviewed by local media after they published their investigation. (Ben Moore)

Story transcript

Last week, the Herriman Telegraph's editor-in-chief Max Gordon, 17, and news editor Conor Spahr, 18, published an investigation titled "Herriman High Teacher Fired for Misconduct."

By the next morning, their story was removed from the school paper's website.

"I think they know, legally, that there's got to be some oversight of that newspaper," Jordan School District spokeswoman Sandra Riesgraf told the Salt Lake Tribune.

But that didn't stop the young journalists. The Telegraph reporters started a new website — the Herriman Telegram — and republished their investigation. They also started a petition to "End the Censorship of The Herriman High Telegraph."

The students reported that a teacher was fired over accusations of misconduct. Fox 13 reports the teacher is also under police investigation for allegedly sending inappropriate messages to student. As It Happens has not independently verified the allegations.

Gordon spoke with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann Friday from the Herriman High School library. Here is part of their conversation.

What reason were you given for your story being spiked?

So far, the administration has actually not given us a reason for it [being] taken down yet. We've sent multiple emails to the administration and the school district, but they still have not responded or given us an exact reason why they took our article down.

Why do you think they did?

If I had to guess, it was because they weren't too happy about all the negative attention the story was bringing.

Max Gordon, left, and Conor Spahr, right, say they were censored by the administration of Herriman High School. (Alexander Sousa)

The Salt Lake Tribune quotes a spokesperson for the school district saying the changes "were made to ensure that the students' journalistic work is accurate, appropriate and informative." 

"We are the publisher of that newspaper and because of that we have to watch out for our students." What do you think?

The interesting part about that is that we did send the article to a vice principal to review because in order to get approval for the print edition ... we do have to have a vice principal review our story.

He made several corrections. Of those corrections, we made every single one of them.

At the Telegraph we believe that if there were inaccuracies in the story it is strange that they didn't point them out then and there.

Your story describes allegations of misconduct made against this teacher. It's a story that clearly could have some real impact on people's lives. Tell us what you did to make sure that you were doing solid, responsible journalism?

We made sure if we ever reported something, we had multiple sources. We made sure we got sources on record.

We also relied on open-record requests so the information we got and were using in our story was directly from the school district's own records.

We also had multiple editors on my staff, including myself, look over the article.

We had legal counsel from The Student Press Law Centre, as well as several other independent attorneys, look over everything to make sure we wouldn't get into any legal trouble.

With all of that work, we believed that we had a story that could be published and it was accurate. 

The staff of the The Herriman High Telegram — an online publication started by Spahr and Gordon after the administration axed their scoop. (Alexander Sousa)

What kind of response have you had from your fellow students?

Incredibly positive.

It's not just the students either. We've had multiple teachers come forward supporting us, especially in the English department.

Outside the school, what kind of reaction is there?

Outside the school, the reaction has been even better.

One of my favourite things that has happened so far is someone started a GoFundMe to send pizza to our newsroom. That has already raised over US $270.

How has this shaped your thoughts about journalism?

Even as an editor-in-chief, journalism wasn't exactly where I planned on going as a career.

Just seeing the whole process, and also how supportive and tight-knit the journalistic community is, it has definitely changed my mind and it is now a career I'm definitely considering.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

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