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Kelly Smith, Published July 12 2009

E-mails reveal West Fargo High School's concerns over adviser

On Monday, dozens of West Fargo students, teachers and parents plan to show the School Board that they support the former high school newspaper adviser.

But they likely won’t mention high school teacher Jeremy Murphy by name, abiding by the district’s policy not to publicly discuss personnel issues.

Likewise, board members don’t expect to give a response.

However, district e-mails obtained by The Forum through an open records request may give some insight into the discussion that’s transpired this past year leading to Murphy’s removal from the role last month due to a “difference in philosophy.”

Administrators, school board members – and now Murphy – won’t elaborate.

Students have argued administrators didn’t like the “negative” content in West Fargo High School’s newspaper, The Packer. But Principal Gary Clark argues Murphy’s removal had nothing to do with censorship.

The 286 pages of e-mails obtained by The Forum allude that the “difference in philosophy” may come down to one thing: law.

Do West Fargo students have freedom of speech in the school’s publications, and if so, how is that controlled?

Murphy and administrators seem to disagree on the answers.

Starting last October, administrators began voicing concern about the publications.

An article about block scheduling caused Clark concern about some “loaded questions” that were being asked by a student journalist.

“Once again, we are facing a controversial issue that has a great amount of chance to harm our relations in this district between staff,” Clark wrote to Murphy in an Oct. 29 e-mail. “How would a student know to ask these questions in that manner? It would have to be because a staff member (or members) have talked in class about these topics or individually to that student.

“These are issues that need to be kept private with our staff,” Clark went on to write. “There has already been many hurt feelings about comments made in our Block Schedule Study Committee. These are not issues for the ears of students or parents and community.”

Clark signed his name, followed with “PS if this issue isn’t solved quickly I will be copying all of this to our superintendent of schools.”

Murphy responded by saying he was working with the student, ending with, “PS We always work with you to resolve these issues, so in the future there is no need to threaten me…thanks.”

In an Oct. 28 e-mail to the Journalism Education Association, Murphy asked for advice because “my district does not understand the concept of a student-run publication.”

“They think they can dictate what the staff includes in the yearbook,” he wrote. “Am I wrong to fight this?”

Since then, he’s sought legal advice from several organizations and legal experts, hoping to gain some insight into whether he’s right in assuming the district can’t limit content.

In January, Murphy told North Dakota Education Association representative Deanna Paulson that he has taught his students that “even though they are school-sponsored, they operate as a limited forum, which gives them strong First Amendment rights in both newspaper and yearbook.”

He continued by saying, “However, it might be different within West Fargo. If that is the case, I not only need to adjust my teaching, but I need to reevaluate the value of having a publications program controlled by administrators. Not only is this an important issue for this particular situation, but the quality and the integrity of the press program at WFHS is in question if administrators can dictate control.”

While he disagreed with administrators, Murphy was also worried his actions were putting his job in jeopardy.

“Gary (Clark) called me into his office and basically told me my job is on the line,” Murphy wrote Jan. 13 to his wife, Tamara, a second-grade teacher at West Fargo’s Berger Elementary. “I said I don’t want to be an adviser of a publication run by administrators anyway, so that is OK with me. I was very calm and collected, having learned from my previous experiences.

“However, he mentioned the superintendent using the word insubordinate … I asked Gary (Clark) straight up if he thought I was insubordinate, and he said those are her (Superintendent Dana Diesel Wallace) words, not his,” Murphy wrote to his wife, adding later that day: “Clark said the insubordination comment is related to the negative stories in the yearbook and newspaper. Dana and Gary both think I need to take control of the publications and only cover positive issues.”

Recently, Clark and Murphy discussed his future teaching the introductory publications class, which includes media law.

Clark agreed in a June 18 e-mail to allow Murphy to teach the class if we have “a serious discussion of the content” of the class.

Clark cited a “new direction we want to go with publications (the ‘philosophy’ discussion that we have had in the last few days).”

He writes: “this would include the philosophy that the adviser will advise. Simply put, decisions (such as who will be included in the yearbook, for example) are NOT made by students. Certainly students may meet with the publications teacher and administrators to give their opinions, but the final decision will not be made by students.”

Murphy agreed, but in a June 19 e-mail to Paulson, he said “there are certain aspects of the Intro. course curriculum where I will not compromise … law/ethics, student press rights, etc.”

In the past weeks, news about Murphy’s removal leaked out.

And as a result, an outpouring of support came from parents as well as current and former students, urging district officials to reconsider.

School Board member Angela Korsmo wrote back to one parent recently, thanking her for her comments, but adding that “decisions of choosing, hiring and retaining staff are administrative decisions and the board does not get involved with these decisions.”

It’s a position all board members, including President Tom Gentzkow, appear to stand by.

“I feel I must stand firm with our policy that ‘issues and concerns involving personnel matters are not appropriate for this Public Comment setting,” Gentzkow told teachers union president Joan Connor on July 1 after she requested to voice her support of Murphy at the board meeting.

The school district’s Web site states: “Issues or concerns involving personnel matters are not appropriate for this Public Comment setting.”

Instead, on Monday, Connor and former Packer Editor Meagan McDougall plan to talk about the importance of the high school’s newspaper – not mentioning Murphy by name.

“It’s really upsetting to me,” McDougall said in an interview Friday. “They’re limiting what we can say to them. They’ve made it pretty clear they aren’t going to listen to what we have to say.”

Connor said the West Fargo Education Association has found another way to voice their support.

The union will host a news conference at 1:30 p.m. Monday at the Fargo Education Association.

“The purpose will be to state our support for Jeremy Murphy,” Connor told The Forum. “This is our way to have a voice.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515