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Helmut Schmidt, Published January 21 2012

Lessons learned: West Fargo teacher removed from adviser role returns

WEST FARGO - Sometimes, free speech has a price. Just ask Jeremy Murphy. Murphy is the publications adviser for West Fargo High School. He teaches journalism and English and guides the students creating The Packer newspaper and the yearbook.

But for the previous two school years, the one-time newspaper man was without a newspaper.

He was removed as adviser for The Packer in June 2009 after disagreements with administrators over the editorial stances of the school newspaper.

He’s back now: a little wiser, perhaps a bit more wary.

Losing The Packer post was a gut-wrenching experience, he said.

“It did kind of shake my educational philosophy a little bit. And of course, you gotta kind of re-evaluate why you’re doing what you do,” Murphy said.

“But teaching publications is a dream. I love what I do. I love the environment that this offers students. But I’m a teacher, too. I love to teach in general. I mean, that’s what I am first, is a teacher,” he said.

A tough year

There was never explicit censorship, but the 2008-09 school year “was a difficult year,” Murphy said.

One of the first conflicts came with the yearbook. Students protested a request by then-Principal Gary Clark to include Community High School photos and information in the West Fargo High yearbook. The material was eventually included, but not without the debate becoming public.

On The Packer side, a staffer made waves with an opinion piece about then Superintendent Dana Diesel Wallace, whose initiatives had riled a number of teachers and students, said Meagan McDougall, who was co-editor-in-chief of the paper at the time.

The Packer also ran a story about a program that let students who had done poorly academically earn credits to graduate by taking part in other activities. McDougall said the article was balanced. But an opinion piece in the paper was critical of the class, and McDougall said administrators thought it was offensive and mean.

Murphy held to a philosophy that the publications were student-led and student-run and that they had some free speech rights.

“Mr. Murphy stood his ground and defended our staff because of the principles of freedom of the student press he taught us. Rather than bow to ‘The Man,’ he was willing to risk his job for his students,” McDougall said.

At the time, publicly and in emails, Murphy admitted to being pressured. He told a Forum reporter in 2009 that he had met with administrators four times over two years about articles in The Packer.

In emails obtained by The Forum in 2009, he said administrators wanted him to take more control of the publications.

When the hammer came in June 2009, Packer staffers and Murphy’s fellow teachers rallied to try and convince the School Board to reverse the decision.

It didn’t happen.

In the intervening years, Murphy concentrated on the yearbook and other activities. And with an eye to the future, he started planning and grant-writing for a web-cast program he hoped to start.

A second chance

A year after Murphy was removed as adviser for The Packer, Diesel Wallace left the district for another job.

A year after that, Clark retired. (He could not be reached for comment for this story.)

Murphy said he approached current high school Principal Cory Steiner about getting The Packer adviser job back.

Steiner said the timing was right. The person advising the newspaper had another project, and Murphy had experience.

After running the idea by Superintendent David Flowers, Steiner gave Murphy the go-ahead.

“You know, everyone deserves another chance,” Steiner said.

“We all didn’t see eye-to-eye, and we all learned a lot over that time. It was far from all being Jeremy’s fault. Administratively, too, we learned some things.”

More cooperation, communication and compromise should prevent a recurrence of 2008-09, Steiner said.

“He (Murphy) wants to teach them how to be true journalists. With that, comes some pretty tough choices. We’re not always going to agree with that,” Steiner said. “I told him I have no interest in censoring anything or telling you what to put in there. Just give me a heads up, and let me know” what’s coming.

A new beginning

Before Murphy got the teaching bug, he worked 14 months as a reporter at a Gillette, Wyo., newspaper.

The West Fargo School District was his first stop after getting his teaching degree, and he’s taught full time for six years.

He’s proud of the work his students are doing.

He points to a copy of last year’s yearbook, the staff won All America honors from the National Scholastic Press Association for it, he said.

The web-cast program he wanted to start is now a co-curricular club, doing play-by-play for sports and streaming some concerts.

He expects the web-casting will be part of a broadcast journalism course that will debut in the 2012-13 school year.

Would he do it all again?

He laughs.

“I would do things differently,” he said. “But I still am a believer in the students’ rights to learn through this experience.”

McDougall, a Concordia College student majoring in public relations and multimedia journalism, says Murphy’s influence helped set her life’s course.

She’s considering attending law school to specialize in media law. Her dream job is to work for the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C.

“He’s the type of teacher every student needs in their life – a teacher who will advocate for his students and stand up for their rights,” she said.

Steiner is confident Murphy will raise West Fargo’s journalism program to an elite level.

“He’s gifted. He really is gifted when it comes to this area. The broadcasting thing really has the potential to transform our school,” Steiner said. “He’s the right guy, absolutely.”

Murphy, for his part, is willing to stay the course.

“I’d like to see us as on our way to building a program,” he said. “Can’t leave in the middle of it.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583