Less than a week before Student Press Freedom Day, Denver Archdiocese spokesman Mark Haas defended Regis Jesuit High School’s recent decision to retract an issue of its student magazine, Elevate, over a student’s controversial pro-choice op-ed.

Speaking on Dan Caplis’ radio show Feb. 16, Haas said, “A good education allows students to ask tough questions, to challenge parts of the faith, to grapple with it, to discuss it, to debate it.

“But that doesn’t mean that the school newspaper needs to publish something that’s against church teaching.”

Haas told Colorado Times Recorder that students at Catholic schools should be allowed to debate “challenging issues” – which presumably would include abortion rights – but that publishing a pro-choice article in an official school publication would “present an implicit endorsement from the school.”

In his radio interview, Haas told Caplis the controversy is not as black-and-white as the “secular media” has made it out to be. He accused the media of falsely characterizing the embattled school as restricting its students’ right to free speech.

“Some of the media that has covered [this event] has tried to portray it in an all-or-nothing sort of light,” Haas said. “[They seem to be saying] if an article is not allowed to be published, therefore, the Archdiocese and Regis don’t allow discussion on difficult topics, and that’s just so far from the truth.”

Speaking to Colorado Times Recorder, Haas said there’s a meaningful difference between students being allowed to engage with difficult topics – something he condones – and a Catholic school publishing what he called an “anti-Catholic opinion.”

 “I am curious, do you think a student at a Jewish high school should be able to publish anti-Jewish opinions in a Jewish school magazine?” Haas asked. “Can you send me the last pro-life opinion article that Colorado Times Recorder published?” [Editor’s note: The CTR regularly provides anti-abortion quotations in our news articles, but a stand-alone piece has never been submitted to us. We invited Haas to submit one for possible publication.]

According to free-press advocate Lucy Dalglish, the dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland, the seeming contradiction between encouraging students to debate issues while not allowing them to publish controversial opinions in the school magazine is hardly surprising.

“[The school is] trying to have their cake and eat it too,” Dalglish said. “‘We allow free expression … and support academic inquiry here at the high school, but oh, we don’t want people to know that we do that.’ That’s the message that’s sending to me.”

The recent events at Regis Jesuit have sparked anger and protests among students. Catholics from around the state and country have also decried the school’s actions, calling on school administrators to publish the student’s piece and reinstate the teachers.

Legally, Dalglish said, a private school like Regis Jesuit can regulate the speech and conduct of its students in ways that would not be permissible in public schools, where the First Amendment protects freedom of expression for students. Colorado’s student free expression law provides additional state-level protection.

But private school students don’t enjoy the same freedoms as their public-school counterparts.

Former Regis Jesuit students Madeline Proctor and Sophia Marcinek, both of whom served as editors for Elevate, expressed surprise over the school’s retraction of the student’s piece, writing in an op-ed that the decision did not align with their experience at the school.

“What is so disheartening about this censorship is that it does not reflect our education at Regis Jesuit,” the alumni wrote. “Previously, the school allowed an op-ed praising Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Roe v. Wade. Why start censoring students now?”

Initially, the school had also allowed the publication of the recent pro-choice op-ed, only to later retract the entire magazine issue that contained the article after it aroused backlash from parents.

Proctor and Marcinek also wrote that they believed school administrators were afraid of conflict with the Denver Archdiocese, which has the authority to strip schools like Regis Jesuit of their official Catholic designation.

Regis Jesuit did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.

Dalglish, a First Amendment lawyer who is Catholic herself, said she believes private schools should aspire to the same free-speech standards that exist in public schools – but in Catholic schools, at least, that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

“I think the best private schools adopt First Amendment-based principles and allow their students to express a variety of views,” Dalglish said. “But as much as I believe the subject of abortion should be up for discussion among students, … I think it’s unrealistic to expect [a Catholic school] to tolerate any pro-abortion rights viewpoints in a publication that is probably funded by the school.”

Still, according to advocates, it’s hard to overstate the importance of free speech for student journalists. The Journalism Education Association (JEA), a nationwide organization for journalism teachers and advisers, has hailed free student expression as an essential foundation for a thriving democracy. The group has also called policies requiring prior review and restraint of students’ work “educationally unsound and democratically unstable.”

Furthermore, the JEA has also proposed a code of ethics for student media advisers. A crucial tenet of this code is that advisers should act as mentors and guides, not censor or make decisions on behalf of students.

Until recently, at least, Regis Jesuit’s philosophy appeared to align with the JEA’s standards. The school’s editorial policies for its student media – which Haas said are being “reevaluated” and have been taken down from the school’s website – stated that “school officials…shall not practice prior review or censor any student media.”

Although the student’s pro-choice op-ed piece drew ire from Catholic parents at the school, what’s at stake here is not only the right to abortion, but the right for students to “encounter and engage multiple points of view that are presented thoughtfully and respectfully” – a goal that’s explicitly stated on the mission page of the school website.

Proctor and Marcinek, the former Regis Jesuit students, poignantly summed up the issue at hand in their op-ed.

“The issue is not whether those with uteruses have a right to abortion,” Proctor and Marcinek wrote. “The issue is whether students should be able to question, speak, and reach their own conclusions. In essence, the question is whether students should be educated.”