Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis said that he relied on legal advice when he vetoed a live candidate blogging forum that the student newspaper, the Clarion, tried to organize last month, because he felt that the school should not get directly involved in the school board race.

After the 2011 referendum campaign, the district was sued by Riverside resident Tony Peraica and an anti-tax group, who claimed that the district used school resources to advocate for yes votes.

That lawsuit was a major factor in his decision, Skinkis said. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed, but the plaintiffs are currently appealing the dismissal of the suit.

“I checked with district legal counsel,” Skinkis told the Landmark. “Considering that we’re involved in litigation currently with the previous lawsuit, we thought it would be a better idea if the students just report through the student newspaper.”

Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, an Arlington, Va.-based organization that advocates for the rights of student journalists, didn’t think much of Skinkis’ explanation.

“It’s such a set of ignorant and short-sighted responses that it’s hard to believe educated people think this way,” said LoMonte, who advised the Clarion staff on the issue. “There’s no difference between letting students question candidates in a live blogging forum and letting them interview candidates and print quotes from them in the newspaper.”

As first reported by the Clarion, the paper’s faculty advisor sent emails to all six District 208 school board candidates asking them to participate in the live blogging forum. Three candidates, James Landahl, Chuck Snyder and Joe Wanner, all replied that they would participate in the forum, in which questions would be submitted via the Internet and candidates would type out their responses.

According to the Clarion, three other candidates, including incumbents Matt Sinde, Mike Welch and candidate Ed Jepson never responded. Sinde, Welch and Jepson ran together as a slate in the April 9 election.

Sinde said that school board was informed about the decision not to allow the Clarion to host the live blogging forum, and he said that he agreed with the decision.

“We’re right in the middle of a lawsuit that’s in the court of appeals involving the referendum and the use of school facilities and teachers and everything else,” Sinde said. “Given that, there’s no way we could let that happen.”

Wanner said that he was disappointed with the decision to cancel the live blogging forum.

“I was disappointed that the debate was canceled because it was a good opportunity for all the candidates to get together and show the community, all the stakeholders, what they believed in, where they stood and how they would work on the board.”

In the past three school board campaigns the school’s television station, RBTV, has broadcast candidate forums in the RBTV studios, but the forums were officially sponsored by League of Women Voters, not the school.

The candidates did have two candidate forums last week hosted by non-school groups, but LoMonte said that does not change
his analysis.

“The fact that there’s alternative ways for the public to get information doesn’t affect the legality of what the school decided,” LoMonte said. “They never should have interceded in a decision that belonged to the students.”

LoMonte said there was a big difference between using school resources to advocate for a yes vote in a referendum and allowing the student newspaper to sponsor a live blogging forum.

“The amount of school money consumed by hosting a chat is zero dollars,” LoMonte said. “The previous lawsuit was about using actual school money to promote a particular outcome in a referendum and that is a light year’s difference from letting students interview political candidates.

“What’s so infuriating about this is that schools give lip service to civic engagement, but the minute that students try to participate in civics, they are swatted down,” he added.

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