Cape flip-flops on press access to walkout

Media barred, then limited to designated area
March 13, 2018

Cape Henlopen officials have approved a student walkout Wednesday, March 14, at Cape High, but not before sending mixed messages on First Amendment rights.

While school and district officials are allowing students to leave school at 10 a.m. for 17 minutes to honor students killed a month ago during a Florida school shooting, press coverage of the event, to be held on public school property, was first denied, and at press time was limited to a designated area.

In an email sent March 8, Stephanie Kichline, communications coordinator for Cape Henlopen, wrote, “As a heads up, we will not be permitting any media on school grounds during the walkout, but we could try to set up any interviews for you after the fact.” The email was sent one day after Superintendent Robert Fulton sent a letter to parents about the student walkout.

On March 9, Fulton said the district was still discussing whether it will allow the media to cover the school event. “We will inform the Cape Gazette and others on Monday about your level of access for the walkout,” he said.

On Monday, the district said media would be permitted in a designated area “where you will be able to see the students and will be permitted to take photos.”

Kichline said the district decided to keep the media separated from students for this event, but she declined to explain why the district is treating the walkout differently from any other school event.

District officials at first agreed to set up an interview March 12 with student organizers selected by the school.  However, officials then cancelled the interview, stating the students wanted to send a statement to The Cape Gazette instead.

The district sent a statement from Cape students Anna Ives-Michener and Jade Shomper who are members of Delaware Youth in Government, which they say encouraged them to get involved at Cape. They said the walkout was never intended to take a stance on guns, but to honor those who have lost their lives in previous acts of school violence and to demonstrate that they want change.

“There seem to be some misunderstandings of the message we are trying to convey. We simply want to show that we stand for school safety and want every student, regardless of where they go to school, to feel safe,” they wrote. “When we first learned of the nationwide student walkouts, we thought that would be a good way to get involved. We are not forcing others to participate if they don’t want to. We recognize that everyone has differences of opinion on what the walkout is representing. We are organizing it as a way to remember lives lost and encourage safety in schools to be addressed.”

Freedom of Information attorneys say by limiting access to the students, it appears the district is trying to control student speech.

“Nobody is better poised to make their opinions known than the students. To make their views known, the press has to have access,” said Christopher Proczko, a First Amendment attorney with Ballard Spahr LLC of Washington, D.C.

Attorney Charles Tobin, also with Ballard Spahr, said journalists have no greater rights than the public, but they have no fewer rights either. If any members of the public are attending, the press has to be allowed, he said. Students have already been allowed to disrupt the school environment, he said, so that cannot be an argument for excluding the press. If safety is a concern, he said, press can go through a metal detector or use school-provided paper and pencil to take notes.

Speaking before the district decided to allow the press limited coverage of the event, Tobin said, “The district seems to be allowing students to do this wonderful exercise in free expression but then not allowing anyone to hear about it.” 

In his letter to parents, Fulton said the district is not endorsing the walkout. Students who do not participate will remain in their classrooms. “We also recognize that our families may have various opinions about their child(ren) participating in the walkout. We respect your opinions and encourage you to talk with your child about your personal beliefs and expectations as a parent,” he wrote.

Any staff member involved in the walkout will be doing so for safety purposes only, Fulton said.

Cape's walkout is being held at the same time and date as national walkouts supported by Women's March Youth Empower – an initiative based on the unity principles of the Women's March platform, which encourages students make a positive impact in their communities. The group encourages students to demand a ban on assault weapons and support federal gun reform legislation, according to the group's website.

However, Cape High is not listed as a participating school on the Youth Empower website.