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This one reminded me of all too many football victories that I've needed a blood pressure pill to celebrate.

You know what I'm talking about: messy, far closer of a call than it should have been. The Good Guys, who had everything going for them, took wa-a-a-ay too long to lock it down.

But, hey, a win is a win and so let's heave a sigh of relief and celebrate the one that the First Amendment managed to eke out in Northwest Arkansas recently: The re-publication of an investigative story by a group of high school journalists that raised serious questions about some strange machinations in their school district's football program.

It took the better part of a week, some harsh national headlines and a sharp rap on the knuckles from the Student Press Law Center but in the end, the Springdale School District did the right thing--and a hard thing, but one that is fundamental to the democracy we all celebrate and serve: It allowed publication of student journalism that was sharply critical of some of the adults who run and influence the school.

So congratulations are in order, but so is a little soul-searching. How have we, as a nation, gotten so far off-course that leaders in our education system fail to stand up for a principle that is as old as the republic and as American as apple pie?

I'm talking about the right to question authority.

That's what three student journalists at Har-Ber High were doing when they published their story, based on leaked documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, an incriminating video (adult drinking and cuss words are involved) and plenty of good old-fashioned shoe-leather journalism. It strongly suggests that some star football players who transferred between high schools in the district between seasons should not have been allowed to do so.

Even before the story's publication, school officials tried to review it. The high school journalism adviser, Karla Sprague, rightly refused. Afterwards, the administrators ordered the story removed from the website and suspended publication of the school paper.

More disturbingly, school officials waged an intimidation campaign against Sprague. According to the BuzzFeed piece that broke the story, the principal threatened to fire the teacher, who is president of the Arkansas Scholastic Press Association.

Allow this newsroom veteran to interject a pointed observation here: This is not the behavior of innocent parties. The Springdale School District's only public response to this story, after first yanking it and then reposting it, has been to say there will be no further comment. There have been no denials issued nor questions raised about the facts of the students' report.

All of which says that the Har-Ber High reporters were asking the right questions, and turning over rocks that needed to be turned over. And like all journalists when we are working at our best, they were performing a public service--even for those football players whose transfers they were questioning.

I'm sure I don't need to tell my fellow football fans about the culture of entitlement that cocoons all too many of our athletes. It's not good for them. Even those who do end up making it big are going to have to face the real world and real rules sometime. Just ask former Kansas City Chiefs star running back Kareem Hunt.

The Springdale school administrators may not be in the right frame of mind at the moment to appreciate this, but the Har-Ber High reporters probably did them a favor: A small scandal now is a lot better than a big one later. Accountability journalism has a way of not letting things fester. "Sunlight," as the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote, "is said to be the best of disinfectants."

One of the things that makes America great is that our founders understood human frailty and accounted for it in the system of checks and balances that they built: Even before the British historian Lord John Acton uttered his famous formulation, they understood that "power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." One of the checks on absolute power built into our Constitution is the free press, enshrined in the First Amendment of our Bill of Rights.

In case we were in danger of forgetting, we got an object lesson in that bit of history. The Har-Ber High students and their gutsy adviser who provided it should get a medal, not a reprimand.

Thanks for reminding us of what it takes to live in the home of the brave.

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Kathy Kiely is Lee Hills Chair in Free Press Studies at the Missouri School of Journalism and a former Washington bureau chief for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 12/13/2018

Print Headline: A win is a win

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