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Vermont student journalists seek to bolster press freedoms

January 24, 2017
Jake Bucci, co-editor of the Burlington High School newspaper, The Register, testifies Jan. 17, 2017, before the Vermont Senate education committee about the New Voices bill.

Jake Bucci, co-editor of the Burlington High School newspaper, The Register, testifies Jan. 17, 2017, before the Vermont Senate education committee about the New Voices bill.

Student journalists took a major step this month toward securing greater First Amendment protection for themselves and their peers in Vermont.

Representatives from the University of Vermont and nearby Burlington High School testified before the Vermont Senate’s education committee in support of Senate bill S.18, which would protect responsible journalism from prior review and censorship in high schools and colleges.

Vermont student journalists Alexandre Silberman and Jake Bucci of the Burlington High School newspaper, The Register, and Kelsey Neubauer of the University of Vermont newspaper, The Vermont Cynic, traveled to Montpelier to testify before the Vermont Senate education committee.

Vermont student journalists Alexandre Silberman and Jake Bucci of the Burlington High School newspaper, The Register, and Kelsey Neubauer of the University of Vermont newspaper, The Vermont Cynic, traveled to Montpelier to testify before the Vermont Senate education committee.

The bill represents a state-level effort to address provisions of the 1988 Supreme Court decision Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, which allows principals to prevent high school students from publishing anything that they consider, in their personal judgment, to be improper for a high school publication. For example, if students produce a newspaper with what the principal considers to be too many grammatical errors, the school can censor it. Later court rulings expanded those restrictions to college newspapers, although only in certain Midwestern states.

The senate bill—one of about 20 state-level bills and laws branded together as the “New Voices” campaign—would allow both high school and college students to print their own words as long as the language did not cause a substantial disruption to the school or break the law. Offenses like libel and invasion of privacy would still be illegal.

The bill would return students to a standard set by the landmark Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines, in which the court ruled that students do not lose their First Amendment rights merely because they step into a school.

The Vermont effort has gained support from students, journalists, educators and free-speech advocates from across the state, region and country. Supporters come from the Vermont Press Association, the Vermont Journalism Education Association, the Student Press Law Center, the New England First Amendment Coalition, the leadership of the University of Vermont’s Student Government Association and elsewhere.

This bill “allows educators to teach students how to be aggressive, responsible journalists while protecting those students and their advisers from unreasonable discipline,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “While focused on student expression, this legislation will ultimately strengthen professional newsrooms throughout the state.

“It will help create an educational environment where the practice of journalism can be better taught and the next generation of Vermont’s watchdogs more easily groomed.”

Vermont Cynic Editor-in-Chief Kelsey Neubauer and co-editors Jake Bucci and Alexandre Silberman of the Burlington High School newspaper, The Register, testified at Tuesday’s hearing. They said that they will continue to advocate for the bill.

Committee members are in the process of examining similar laws in other states to see how the Vermont bill compares. They said that they want to make sure that they balance student press freedoms with reasonable protections for all high school students.

UPDATE: Ken Page, executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association, testified before the education committee today. He released a statement showing substantial support for the bill before speaking. Also testifying were Peter Teachout, professor at Vermont Law School, and Jeff Fannon, executive director of the Vermont National Education Association.

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Voice of America tackles threats to student press freedom

January 5, 2017


Voice of America this week published a new piece about the plight of college newspapers and other student-run news organizations, a topic that’s been in the press quite a bit in the past year.

The VOA story stems from a report that I helped write as chairman of the First Amendment Advocacy Program of College Media Association: a role separate from my work as the UVM student media adviser. Other contributors to the report include writers and editors at the American Association of University Professors, the Student Press Law Center and the National Coalition Against Censorship.

It’s hard to say whether the number of cases of censorship by college officials is increasing, but, in the modern media environment, our awareness of threats to students’ free expression is.

College officials sometimes demand to see stories before they go to print or cut funding entirely if student journalists write articles that offend their sensibilities. This happens with stories ranging from the obviously vital—investigations into the actions of misbehaving administrators, say—to the seemingly trivial, such as the best places to hook up on campus. Student government organizations sometimes punish the press, too.

In many cases, perpetrators of this censorship claim other motives for their actions and say that censorship isn’t taking place at all. They might say that they want to shutter a newsroom because of concerns about a newspaper’s finances or that the removal of the newspaper’s adviser is a result of larger university cutbacks. Sometimes they say that an adviser has been removed from her position for other work-related reasons that they can’t discuss because of privacy rules around personnel issues. Sometimes, definitely, censorship has nothing to do with it, but our research shows that, too often, it does.

We’re blessed at the University of Vermont, where college officials value the student press in a way that not every higher ed administrator does. If The Vermont Cynic publishes something that offends a reader, then UVM officials point that reader to the student editors. This is so automatic that, even as the newspaper’s adviser, I usually don’t hear about these complaints until well after students have responded to the offended party, whether it be a local business owner or government official.

Not every college media organization is so fortunate. Our hope is that the report might shine a light on these problems and provide guidance for how to move forward.

Vermont Cynic wins national Diversity Story of the Year award

October 24, 2016

By at least one measure of college news writing—one highly respected, pretty definitive measure—the staff of The Vermont Cynic this year wrote the nation’s best story focused on diversity and social justice.

Associated Collegiate Press—which also awards the Pacemaker, aka the “Pulitzer Prize of college journalism”—on Saturday awarded the Cynic’s examination of the University of Vermont’s racist past with the 2016 “Diversity Story of the Year Award.”

Who didn’t get the award? Well … every other college and university in the nation.

Among the nine finalists receiving runner-up status were some of higher-ed’s top journalism programs.

Runners-up included:

  • University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
  • University of Oregon
  • Ball State
  • Drake
  • The Graduate School of Journalism at City University of New York
  • Pepperdine
  • Northwestern

All came in second place or lower to the University of Vermont, which has no journalism program: just the hard-working staff of The Vermont Cynic, a 3,000-circulation newspaper with a staff of fewer than 100.


Layout editors Eileen O’Connor and Kira Bellis react to the win.

“I’m just extremely proud of all the people who worked on the story,” said Hannah Kearns, the Cynic’s editor-in-chief. “It definitely was a huge team and collaborative effort.

“That was my favorite part, being able to see see a team of talented journalists come together to create something amazing.”

The story focused on Kakewalk, a 73-year UVM tradition in which students performed in blackface. The practice continued into the 1970s, according to the Cynic’s reporting.

“Not a lot of people knew that the KakeWalk even existed at UVM,” Kearns said. “The ability to shine a light on that was really important. That’s what our job is.”

News writer Kelsey Neubauer, who co-wrote the story with fellow reporter Bryan O’Keefe under the supervision of enterprise editor Sarah Olsen, said talking to sources involved in and affected by KakeWalk was an emotional experience.

img_5901Neubauer said that social justice issues are close to her heart, and, before writing this story, she had long debated whether she could do more good as a social justice activist or as a journalist who could bring these issues to light for a wider audience.

In the end, she said, she chose the latter: “This story is what made me want to be a journalist.”

Neubauer and O’Keefe will continue to have an outsized impact on The Cynic. Just last week, Neubauer was elected as the next editor-in-chief, and O’Keefe was chosen as her managing editor.

Both Kearns and Neubauer said that this story helped them understand the value of deep reporting—getting to know their sources through extended conversations and probing questions—and staying sensitive to the fact that the tradition inflicted immense emotional pain on so many people.

Producing this story, Kearns said, “definitely wasn’t a sprint. We treated it as a marathon.”

This is the second year in a row that the Cynic earned national recognition for its reporting. Last year, ACP gave a second-place News Story of the Year award to the Cynic  for its investigation of working conditions at Sodexo, the food service provider for University of Vermont students, faculty and staff.


Story co-writer Kelsey Neubauer returns to the rest of her team after accepting the award for The Cynic.

Neubauer and other Cynic staff members received the award while in Washington, D.C. this weekend for ACP’s National College Media Convention.

Among the other moments of the weekend: seeing talks by heavy-hitters such as Donna Brazile, interim chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee; Bob Woodward, the legendary Washington Post editor; and—by video chat from his exile in Russia—Edward Snowden, the government whistleblower who revealed that the U.S. government was conducting electronic surveillance on Americans on a massive scale.

Remembering a Vermont Cynic layout legend

July 26, 2016
Screen Shot 2016-07-26 at 2.24.09 PM

Susan Mitchum Ball, 1943-2016

At the end of the era in which journalists still pasted their stories onto a physical page to be sent to the printer, few non-students were as essential to The Vermont Cynic as Sue Ball.

Ball was a “Cynic legend” who stayed awake into the wee hours of the morning waiting for the University of Vermont’s student journalists to finish their stories and turn in their photos, said Pat Brown, UVM’s director of Student Life.

“Sue would sit behind this wall of a machine that would amaze current students,” Brown said. “It was massive, with a simple keyboard and a driver the size of an old VW bug. She typed and coded stories, then passed along neat columns of student inspirations to inform the campus.”

Brown said he would encourage Ball to head home if students missed their deadlines, but she refused to do it, saying that she couldn’t let the students down.

“Sue was a trooper, hanging out in Billings with her dog Damien, waiting for the ever-tardy, yet intensely driven story. She’d also help students format their resumes and create a poster or two for student organizations.”

Ball died July 8 at the age of 72, according to the Burlington Free Press. She owned the business Bold Face Type & Design and started the Burlington magazine LOOKOUT, which continued until the late 1980s.

Read her obituary here.

Documentary delves into UVMtv’s history, challenges and sense of family

June 8, 2016

The first UVMtv screen flickered into existence in the late 1990s, a prehistoric era in which students lacked the most basic video necessities. There was no Netflix. No YouTube. Video streaming was the stuff of science fiction. The mere act of watching a second-run movie required a perilous journey through snow and ice to Blockbuster Video, where students could pool their money to rent a $3 film, provided they returned it the next day—lest they face dreaded late fees with each passing day.

UVMtv saved the day, delivering a constant stream of nearly new movies to every television in the residence halls. Over time, the students who chose these movies began making their own shows: news, comedies, dating shows and some pretty psychedelic fare, too.

A new UVMtv mini-doc sheds light on the struggles those students have faced in the years since. UVMtv’s current technical director, Carolyn Pedro, produced the 11-minute film after interviewing a decade’s worth of UVMtv members. The result is a trip through those years when UVMtv sought a studio home on the University of Vermont campus—bouncing from Billings Hall to Coolidge Hall to the Davis Center and more—but mostly Pedro tells a story of how students found their college family on both sides of the camera.

Pedro shared what is was like making the documentary:

I wanted to make the video because I saw how much enthusiasm the members have for the club and the hard work that gets put into it. Unfortunately, the club doesn’t get the recognition it deserves and I wanted to highlight those issues with a documentary.

UVMtv technical director Carolyn Pedro (far left), a junior majoring in film and television studies, says she made the documentary to help viewers understand the passion of the organization’s members. Pedro stands with the rest of UVMtv’s 2016-2017 executive board, who are (from left) Mary O’Toole, Callie Mae Bowen, Lilly Dukich and Yuwei Zhu.

UVMtv technical director Carolyn Pedro (far left), a junior majoring in film and television studies, says she made the documentary to help viewers understand the passion of the organization’s members. Pedro stands with the rest of UVMtv’s 2016-2017 executive board, who are (from left) Mary O’Toole, Callie Mae Bowen, Lilly Dukich and Yuwei Zhu.

Ultimately I wanted to represent UVMtv in a way that shows how much passion is devoted to it by current and previous members. I want those who watch it to realize the dedication its members have to the organization and maybe even get some more recognition for the organization.

I learned how strong its community is. In some ways the organization has really impacted everyone who has been involved. In a short few weeks of starting this documentary I received an overwhelming amount of support from previous and current members. Regardless how many conflicts the club has faced the enthusiasm and devotion for the club has always been alive since the beginning. Everyone is so supportive of what the club has and can accomplish.


For UVMtv: New digs, a new channel, a new start

March 8, 2016

Things just keep getting better for UVMtv.

Just before spring break, club leaders found out that they’d need to vacate their studio under Ira Allen Chapel to make way for UVM computer techs, who themselves had been booted from their old space as UVM shuffles a number of offices.

UVMtv Station Manager Melisa Rayvid

UVMtv Station Manager Melisa Rayvid

Packing everything up wasn’t necessarily easy, but UVMtv quickly relocated to a bright new space in the basement of Wright Hall, one of the residence halls on Redstone Campus.

For UVMtv, the relocation comes on the heels of signing a deal with Burlington Telecom to create two channels available to Burlington residents: channel 300 for standard-def reception and channel 313 for high-def.

Anyone with a Burlington Telecom subscription will be able to watch 24 hours a day. The newest shows will air in the evenings, said Melisa Rayvid, UVMtv’s station manager.

“UVMtv is very excited to be back on TV and broadcasting throughout the Burlington area,” Rayvid said. “Burlington Telecom has helped up become a real television station again.”Unknown

For nearly a decade, UVMtv had streamed up to four channels into UVM’s residence halls. However, when the department of residential life yanked cable from the res halls in 2013, UVMtv went web-only. Several shows continue to flourish online, but the cable deal should mean wider viewership, Rayvid said.

“Our entire staff and people within the UVM community cannot wait to see themselves and their friends on TV,” she said.Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 1.43.00 PM

The partnership is a good deal for Burlington Telecom, too, said Abbie Tykocki, the organization’s director of marketing and public relations.

“Burlington Telecom has a lot of off-campus student customers,” Tykocki said. “UVMtv was eager to get back on the air, and BT was excited to be able to help. It’s a really cool way for BT to say thank you to our student customers.

“They support us, and we’re thrilled to help give something back to the community.”

With the switch to the new studio, UVMtv had to take the new channels offline during spring break as UVM re-wired the space, but Rayvid said channels 300 and 313 will be back on the air next week—right after UVM’s spring break.



The Cynic touts its top stories of the year

January 6, 2016
Burlington station WCAX interviewed Cynic journalists about their top news stories in 2015.

Burlington station WCAX interviewed Cynic journalists about their top news stories in 2015.

Burlington, Vermont, TV station WCAX recently interviewed the new Vermont Cynic leadership team—editor-in-chief Hannah Kearns and managing editor Jacob Holzman—about the Cynic’s top stories of 2015.

This local news coverage comes at the end of an exciting year for the Cynic. In October, Associated Collegiate Press recognized a Cynic investigation into working conditions at University of Vermont dining areas as the second-best college newspaper story in the country.

“There is an immense amount of value in thorough, long-term digging and investigative journalism,” said Holzman, who led the investigative team that produced the award-winning story. “From what we’ve heard from the employees we spoke with during the initial investigation, employees are now better off because of these changes.”

Stories featured by WCAX include an enterprise story about a UVM employee who has accused the university of paying her less than her male counterparts. That story, written by reporter Kelsey Neubauer, received local media attention shortly after it was published in December.