School district mishandled media access to flag-raising

Vermont Community Newspaper Group

South Burlington school officials botched what should have been a notable exercise of free expression — raising a Black Lives Matter flag at South Burlington High School on Feb. 1, in conjunction with Black History Month.

It was the ceremony they didn’t want anybody to see, at least not close enough to hear anyone talk.

Initially, the ceremony was planned outdoors, near the flagpole, and the public and news reporters and photographers were told that they’d have to stand on the sidewalk on the opposite side of Dorset Street from the school, which meant the TV cameras would have to shoot across four lanes of traffic and hope that a moving van didn’t suddenly show up. (Of course, the sidewalk on the school side of Dorset Street is public property, and school officials have no right to restrict the public from that sidewalk.)

Further, snowplows were parked across all entry points for vehicles at the school, police were stationed on Dorset Street, and all the commotion undoubtedly contributed to a rear-end collision during the three-minute ceremony raising the Black Lives Matter flag.

Apparently, school officials were fearful that some in the community object to Black Lives Matter’s perceived anti-Israel history. In any case, there were no visible protests of any kind.

Two leading journalism groups, the New England First Amendment Coalition and the Vermont Free Press, sent a joint email the day before the ceremony to South Burlington Superintendent David Young, objecting to the rules. The rules, they said, are “an unnecessary infringement on the right of journalists to enter public property — property supported by taxpaying citizens — to report on a story of great public interest. Not to mention, by barring the press, the school district invites the suspicion of community members who may speculate about the purpose of the school’s secrecy.”

The organizations called attention to the recent community dialogue about race — the high school controversially changed its mascot name from the Rebels to avoid ties to Confederate imagery — and the country’s current political climate.

“South Burlington High School students gave much thought and consideration to this event over the course of a year and their efforts should be fully recognized in the community,” the groups wrote to Superintendent Young. “We urge you to reconsider the media restriction and allow members of the press to attend the flag-raising ceremony. Only with this access can South Burlington residents better understand the significance of the event and the extent of the students’ involvement.”

The Other Paper emailed Patrick Burke, the high school principal, asking that the restrictions be lifted on news coverage of the Black Lives Matter flag- raising and related events.

“It’s important for the community to understand how South Burlington High School has advanced from the ‘Rebel’ days and show your focus on diversity and understanding,” The Other Paper wrote to Burke. “This is a great story for South Burlington High School, but we can’t report it if we can’t see it.”

In a telephone call, Burke offered some flexibility, but later in the day, the school district decided to move all but the flag-raising inside the high school building and to bar the press and the public.

This is really unfortunate. Here we have a long period of deliberation by South Burlington students and a decision to make a statement — raising the Black Lives Matter flag — to honor the diversity among the student body and the need to combat racism. And we have school officials who go along with the students’ plans, but make sure to minimize the possibility that anyone will see the ceremony or be able to interview students about what they’re thinking. The school did offer a press conference afterward, but that’s hardly as symbolically important as raising the flag. When students stand up for a principle, they should be honored, not hidden from view.

Tom Kearney is the executive editor of the Vermont Community Newspaper Group, which owns The Other Paper, Shelburne News, The Citizen, The Stowe Reporter, Waterbury Record, and News & Citizen in Morrisville.

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