Madison School Officials Consider Controversial Student Newspaper Policies

Leila Fletcher, Kadjata Bah, and Leilani McNeal:

Madison school officials will consider hiring an Ohio-based company known for policies that some say hinder the free speech rights of student journalists.

Two school board members and Interim Superintendent Jane Belmore met last month with representatives of Ohio-based NEOLA. NEOLA is a policy-writing firm often hired by school districts to write and implement policies for local boards and local administrators. 

NEOLA policies were scrutinized recently in Wisconsin during a controversial case in Oshkosh. In that case a student reporter was prevented from publishing a story about abrupt staff changes at Oshkosh North High School.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that Brock Doemel, a senior at Oshkosh North, eventually filed open records requests to learn more about an absent school staff member and to learn more about why the student-written story was removed from the school’s newspaper.

But policies written by NEOLA refer to student newspapers as “nonpublic forums” and therefore controlled by school district administrators. In the Oshkosh case, policies written by NEOLA were cited as reasons for denying open records requests, requiring student journalists to pay for public records, and asking student journalists to share their reporter’s notes, according the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. 

“The rule is that in what should be an open forum, the students have the right to publish unfettered and then they deal with the backlash that comes or the kudos that come,” said Vince Filak, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin—Oshkosh who criticized NEOLA media policies.

Oshkosh students contacted the Student Press Law Center seeking advice in the case. Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel at the center, called NEOLA a “policy mill.” He said NEOLA’s “student media policies, in particular, has been something we’ve been battling here at the Student Press Law Center for 15-20 years.”

MMSD spokesperson Tim LeMonds spoke to The Capital Times and confirmed the district is “strongly considering” a partnership with NEOLA. The company’s website shows NEOLA offers services on bylaws and policies, administrative guidelines and procedures, and a district policy website.