Lawrence journalism students convince district to reverse course on AI surveillance they say violates freedom of press

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Journalism students at Lawrence High School have convinced the school district to remove their files from the purview of a controversial artificial intelligence surveillance system after months of debate with administrators.

The AI software, called Gaggle, sifts through anything connected to the district’s Google Workspace — which includes Gmail, Drive and other products — and flags content it deems a safety risk, such as allusions to self-harm, depression, drug use and violence. 

The district purchased Gaggle in August for $162,000 over three years.

The four students — seniors Natasha Torkzaban, Morgan Salisbury, Jack Tell and Maya Smith — have reported extensively on the issue for the LHS student newspaper and spent the last five months in sometimes heated discussions with district administration over their concerns about how Gaggle might violate student privacy and their First Amendment rights. 

Despite the students convincing the district to remove them from Gaggle’s monitoring, they said they still have concerns for other students in the district and privacy rights that span beyond the First Amendment. 

A major part of the students’ concern was the district’s handling of the issue. During one meeting, students said they were told by a district administrator their arguments meant they valued student press rights over efforts to curtail student suicide. Later, students said, they were asked not to bring a lawyer to discuss the issues at a March meeting despite the district choosing to bring a lawyer of its own. 

Timeline of concerns

Their concerns began when the product went live on student devices in November. The students were concerned about how the software could invade the privacy of their reporting, which sometimes covers serious issues and can be critical of district staff and administration. 

The issue was amplified when Gaggle flagged and removed files from student artists claiming they displayed child nudity. Many of the images didn’t even violate the school dress code, The Budget reported. Their images were returned after months of pushback.

They requested a meeting with USD 497 Director of Technology David Vignery, but because of personal reasons, he was unable to meet for months. Eventually, students met with many top district administrators, including Superintendent Anthony Lewis, on March 6 to describe their concerns.

Lawrence High School journalism students, from left, Natasha Torkzaban, Maya Smith, Jack Tell and Morgan Salisbury sit at Taylor’s Donuts in Lawrence on April 18, 2024 to meet with journalists. (Sherman Smith / Kansas Reflector)

“We were very surprised when district administrators just kept walking in the room one after another,” Tell said. “We were expecting, you know, the superintendent, the head of technology, maybe a lawyer, but instead they brought like 12 people.”

At first, the students said they felt the meeting was productive. Administrators expressed willingness to work with the students. Torkzaban described it as “90% optimistic.”

But in the last minutes of the meeting, it took a turn. Students said USD 497 Mental Health Coordinator Kiley Luckett told them they were valuing their press right above the mental health of their peers, a claim the students rejected and said was an unfair equivalence. District spokesperson Julie Boyle did not respond to a request to confirm this account. 

“It just turned, like, so quickly out of nowhere,” Smith said. “And I think our attitudes changed once our morals about student mental health were questioned. Or not even questioned, it was more of an accusation.”

Gaggle spokesperson Shelby McIntosh Goldman made a similar statement in an email: “While we fully support a child’s right to freely express themselves, we also understand that in order to do so, they must be alive,” she said. 

The students said the idea their press rights must come in conflict with students’ mental health was false. 

“We also want people to be alive,” Torkzaban said. “We just want you to stop violating their rights.”

Lewis said the district’s first priority is ensuring student safety and any solution must be in line with this goal. He said Gaggle has helped the district save lives. 

Boyle said since Gaggle was activated, the software has alerted administrators to 31 imminent threats to students’ well-being. Gaggle has analyzed more than 11 million items.

When the students requested a quick solution from the district after the first meeting, they said Boyle told them she had only found out about the issue days ago, despite copies of emails that show she had been contacted months earlier. 

In the weeks after their initial meeting, the students’ concerns grew. After being told Gaggle did not monitor files on teacher’s accounts, the students learned Gaggle can scan any file owned by any account if a student account edits it. 

“That showed us that obviously, they’re not fully aware of what abilities this program has,” Torkzaban said.

On March 29, the journalism students again met with many of the school district’s top administrators and David Cunningham, an attorney from the Kansas Association of School Boards and previous director of human resources and legal counsel for Lawrence Public Schools.

The students had hoped to bring a lawyer with the Student Press Law Center, one with expertise in First Amendment and media law, but said they were told by district administration there would be no need. 

Bryndal Hoover / LHS Budget Lawrence High School student journalists Maya Smith, left, and Natasha Torkzaban are pictured during a March 29, 2024 meeting with district administrators.

Students said Cunningham told them their arguments had no merit — a claim the Student Press Law Center refutes — but offered to switch the journalism staff to Office365 products. The journalism students said this would be disruptive to their work. 

“It’s very bizarre to go into this meeting, have them debunk your whole argument and say it doesn’t matter, and then propose a solution,” Salisbury said. “We had agreed going into the meeting, above everything else, we were not going to say yes to anything.”

The dynamic of the meeting made the students uncomfortable. 

“The meeting felt very confrontational to start,” Tell said. “And it was rather disheartening to hear them try to deescalate before the meeting and say, ‘Oh, don’t bring a lawyer, it’s fine,’ but then open the meeting so harshly and refute our legal basis and our legal claims so quickly. And then they quickly pivoted to saying, ‘OK, so there’s that. But also, here’s a solution for you. Be happy.’”

Boyle said the district held the meetings to review the information from the students and discuss potential solutions. 

“These meetings were fact finding and information sharing opportunities,” Boyle said via email. “Both the district and the students have legitimate interests and are working collaboratively on a solution.”

One week after the second meeting, the students were told they would be removed from the surveillance of Gaggle.

“The district has since discussed with the LHS journalism teacher and one of the journalism students a solution that they are working with us on that would remove students enrolled in journalism from Gaggle scanning to protect their news gathering and reporting process,” Boyle said.  

Legal precedence

The journalism students argued the privacy of their files was crucial to their mission and in line with historical legal precedence. 

On the day of the meeting, hundreds of students and staff members at LHS and Free State wore black armbands supporting the student journalists, referencing the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines that affirmed the First Amendment rights of students in schools. The students spoke with Mary Beth Tinker, who initiated the case, days later. 

During the student’s second meeting with district administrators, students said Lewis told them equating their situation with a case about the Vietnam War was wrong.

“There’s a handout in front of them where we explained why we were wearing them and the significance in the history of the case,” Smith said. “But that threw us off. And I just thought it was kind of disrespectful, kind of rude.”

During a presentation with district administrators, the journalism students argued their files were protected by the Kansas Student Publications Act, legislation that protects student journalists in public schools, ensuring editorial independence and shielding them from censorship or prior restraint by school authorities.

They argued the Kansas Reporter’s Shield Law, which protects journalists’ confidential notes and sources, prohibited the district from deploying Gaggle and possibly looking through their reporting material.

Their arguments have been regularly supported by the Student Press Law Center.

“When school districts implement AI-powered software at great expense without fully understanding its implications, everyone loses,” Student Press Law Center staff attorney Jonathan Gaston-Falk said in an email. “In particular, student journalists suffer a chilling effect when they know their product is being heavily scrutinized before even being published.”

They referenced a 2018 case when an administrator at Shawnee Mission North confiscated a student’s camera during a protest. The ACLU said the school district violated the student’s First Amendment rights. Despite the district owning the cameras, the ACLU said the students were unjustly restricted from exercising their free speech rights.

Both the students and the Student Press Law Center referenced the police raid of the Marion County Record which made national headlines for violating free press rights. 

“Courts have made it quite clear that government officials can’t bust down the front door of a newsroom to search journalists’ notes and computer files,” Gaston-Falk said. “School districts and other public officials should take note that they cannot employ a software system that effectively creates a back door for doing the same thing.”

McIntosh Goldman, the Gaggle spokesperson, said the company aims to help schools fulfill their legal responsibility, citing the Children’s Internet Protection Act. CIPA was passed into law in 2000 and requires institutions to implement measures to block access to obscene or harmful content. 

But the students said the law doesn’t support total surveillance of student work and devices. A group of U.S. Senators agreed in a 2021 letter to Gaggle’s CEO

“CIPA was created in the era of the Yahoo search engine, not the era of AI,” Tell said.  

Lewis in an email statement Thursday said the journalism students made a compelling case and he appreciated their willingness to bring the issues to the district’s attention. 

“We came up with a solution because we want to support our students and the journalism process,” he said. “And I believe that it addresses their concerns.” 

A bigger problem

The journalism students think they might be some of the first to challenge Gaggle’s invasion of student press rights. But they are confident they won’t be the last.

An editorial published by The Budget Thursday outlines advice for future journalism students making the same case. 

Barb Tholen / Contributed photo Lawrence High School student journalists Morgan Salisbury, Natasha Torkzaban, Jack Tell and Maya Smith

“I think that should be a clear warning sign for other school districts,” Tell said. “This issue is really tough, and if you’re not aware of it, and kind of on your feet and working towards it, it could be a really hard issue to resolve.

“This Gaggle issue is going to, we think, it’s going to be faced by districts and journalism programs across the country very soon,” Tell continued.

The students said they felt the district has supported the journalism program for years, recognizing their success. But this showed the students the battle could be even tougher at other schools across the country.  

“In a district that has been very supportive of our programs for so long,” Smith said. “It goes to show that people are not going to just believe you. You have to work so much harder for it. Especially when we’re the only ones talking about it.”

Lewis, in an emailed statement Thursday, reaffirmed the district’s support for the journalism program. 

“We are proud of these students for advocating for what is important to them. Advocacy is one of the skills we try to teach our scholars,” Lewis said. “Our district values student journalism as an important part of our educational program.”

The students are attending a district policy meeting at noon Friday. They said they want to ensure their legal concerns are known and their rights are protected in the future. 

“After that,” Tell said, “we’re just going to keep advocating for our rights.”

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Note: Torkzaban has done work for The Lawrence Times. Times reporter Cuyler Dunn was a reporter for The Budget from 2019-2022. 

Cuyler Dunn (he/him), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a student at the University of Kansas School of Journalism. He is a graduate of Lawrence High School where he was the editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper, The Budget, and was named the 2022 Kansas High School Journalist of the Year. Read more of his work for the Times here.

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