Freedom of the Student Press

Yesterday I posted about the myopic view of the Everett School District’s new prior review policy, and now the WJEA (Washington Journalism Education Association) weighs in:

The Everett School District is putting together quite an unenviable track record of trying to squelch student free expression rights.

It began last year with the mess at Everett High School, in which the school board backed a principal who required prior review, resulting in two students suing the district and the adviser being “reassigned.” It has continued this year with the students at Cascade High School taking their newspaper underground — as the students at Everett did — in an effort to retain control over their publication, and resulted in a student and teacher being suspended for working on The Free Stehekin on school computers.

All because the administrators in the Everett School District insist on prior review of student publications.

In a letter to the editor published yesterday in the Everett Herald, WJEA President Kathy Schrier fired back:

Those of us involved in scholastic journalism are shaking our heads at the fallout from this flawed policy: two good teachers whose careers have been impacted, two former student editors who are suing the school district, and now a top student suspended for 10 days. Why? Because the Everett School District does not believe that students should control the content of their student publications. …

When student newspapers are forced underground, students must learn by the seat of their pants – rather than in a classroom setting – how to use their voices in published works. This removes a tremendous opportunity for learning and exploring best practices under the guidance of a certificated teacher/adviser. …

I propose that scrapping the policy would be a bold, educationally sound move for the Everett School Board. It would show a commitment to making Everett schools places where democratic principles are modeled, critical thinking is encouraged, and where students don’t relinquish their rights at the schoolhouse gate.

This piggybacks on what the Herald said in its own editorial earlier last week.

The Everett School District shouldn’t worry about a troublesome article showing up in a student newspaper. Its own actions have become embarrassing enough. …

The suspensions are the latest chapter in a tale of administrative overreaction. … (T)he district faces a federal trial, a hard-working student and a respected teacher are suspended, and journalism students don’t have access to school equipment to publish campus newspapers, all because a misguided policy is being enforced. …

Educators overseeing student publications are there to teach journalism. Students learn by engaging in the entire publishing process, including the chance to deal with the repercussions of printing controversial material.

The district’s current policy has created problems rather than preventing them, and has fostered a hostile environment for student journalism. Enough damage has been done. The school board needs to abandon its policy of prior review.

The part that makes me laugh the most — or maybe cry? — is that Whittemore was suspended for 10 days because of a policy that “prohibits students from using school funds to create an unsanctioned publication.”

Which makes me wonder.

Are they suspending every student who is using “school funds” — computers, printers, telephones, etc. — to create unsanctioned work at school? Or just those “dangerous” students producing newspapers?

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11 thoughts on “Freedom of the Student Press

  1. Dan Ray

    I teach history at a small, private school in Texas. I think the notion of “freedom” is perhaps at the heart of the matter.

    I think our nation was founded upon a word that has had and continues to have a great deal of ambiguity.

    I’ve suggested to my students that “freedom” or perhaps “liberty” from colonial times, has come to mean at least two things in our day, which I think can be traced back to the eras in which freedom/liberty was being hammered out on the forge of the American experience/experiment.

    Freedom as a god, i.e. political or religious freedom being more important than the politics or religion sought via that freedom.

    And freedom in God, i.e. true, authentic freedom, regardless of circumstances, found in Christ.

    To argue “for” freedom for one party involves curtailing the “freedom” of another.

    Reply
  2. drpezz Post author

    In this case, Dan, whose freedom is being curtailed at the expense of another? If it’s the kids, then this should be an easy case to argue, especially since the district has actually increased its liability.

    Reply
  3. Dan Ray

    Dear Drpezz:

    I truly believe your question represents my point.

    True freedom, as I’m sure you’re aware, has limits. In order to be able to “freely” move about the highway system in our nation, for example, drivers must submit to certain limits, statutes, etc.

    Those limits are for our safety. We all accept and abide by them, for the most part, anyway!

    The problem with this school issue, it seems, from what I’ve read, is that both sides have their own definition of what is and is not acceptable.

    In other words, it’s a limits issue.

    The district believes it is acting on behalf of the interests of the students, parents, community, etc.

    It also doesn’t wish to be responsible for material that may be acceptable to some but objectionable to others.

    Such a stances implies they know what is best. They feel it is the best interest of all involved that they should limit the students “freedom” so to say.

    On the other hand, the students seem to be in a position of wanting to exercise their freedom of speech at school through their journalism course.

    It all seems to boil down to the nature of the material, from what I’ve understood. And again, it’s a matter of limitation.

    But how is that determined?

    And that’s where “freedom as a god” if you will, breaks down. It offers no particular guidance on what or what should not be permitted. In fact, I think this sort of freedom advocates a sort of “limitlessness” in societal terms. “Do whatever you wish” seems to be the hallmark of our age.

    Both sides seek to curtail each other’s freedom to act in a certain way.

    But again, “freedom” according to whose standards? Who or what decides what the limits should be? How is freedom defined in this context?

    Limits imply morality. You might think we are not able to legislate morality, but we forget that legislation is in fact a type of morality.

    How does one arbitrate such an impasse when there is no real “moral” consensus on what constitutes “objectionable” or “controversial”?

    Should the students be allowed to do whatever they wish in the name of journalism and free speech? How far do the adults/teachers let them go? Where are their limits? At what point does freedom deteriorate into anarchy?

    Should not the administration be allowed to enforce policy? After all, its what they’re paid to do. What are their limits? Who decides? At what point is their authority considered tyranny? How do we know?

    I think true freedom can only exist if there is an acceptable moral foundation upon which all may agree and to which all are willing to submit.

    At least that’s what I’d think, anyway.

    D. Ray

    Reply
  4. drpezz Post author

    Don’t apologize. Good conversation is always welcome.

    In cases of student journalism, I have never known (nor have I heard of) a student reporter to ever knowingly abuse his station. The students are learning how to make responsible decisions as they progress through their journalism courses, and an adviser is hired to do just that: advise. In this way, the students are taught, trained, and allowed to learn through their successes and failures. The district wants to impose a review, which of course results in censorship whether direct or indirect. Censorship of a student press is expressly illegal, but to do so by indirect means, by forcing students to self-censor, is not. This is the attempt of the district.

    No successful, award winning, recognized student newspaper exists where prior review is the practice.

    Reply
  5. Clix

    Um.

    Year before last, I had a student do that. In the YEARBOOK, no less. Changed something after I’d given the page the final okay, but before it was uploaded – I had other pages to look at, and I have to upload from home since our district won’t (or wouldn’t – I’m gonna lobby again this year since I’m having some trouble getting things uploaded) let me upload from the school computers. And I don’t have InDesign at home. SO.

    And that was only my second year teaching. I’m lucky I kept my job. (Though I think that might’ve been because nobody wanted it!)

    I tell the students that the only truly free press is one they produce and distribute completely on their own. I can’t imagine that any successful, award winning, recognized student newspaper allows any students to join and publish whatever they want, because honestly? A lot of “whatever they want” is fluff, crap, or both.

    Yesterday my wonderful gremlins bypassed writing about school sports, community service projects, Red Ribbon Week, the UNICEF fund drive, and other newsy articles because they would rather do “Our Favorite Holiday Songs” and “Our Favorite Places to Shop” and “Our Holiday Wish Lists” and “Our Favorite Holiday Movies” and “The History of Holidays” (What Do You Mean I Can’t Copy Wikipedia?)

    At what point does it go from being common sense (really, we DO need to cover the UNICEF drive, which was a student sponsored, student-run event!) to censorship (no, we CANNOT list “your mom’s bed” as one of the “Favorite Vacation Spots!!”)?

    To me, BOTH of those are common sense, and if the student isn’t going to exercise it, then it falls to the adults.

    Reply
  6. drpezz Post author

    I think you are helping to prove my point because you are the adviser, the one in charge. Decisions such as these should not fall to outside, untrained personnel. I know we have built a strong program (Pacemakers are frequent here), but we have also done this by being very careful about which students to choose for leadership positions and for reporter jobs.

    It took ten years to build our program, and we would fight tooth and nail to maintain its integrity and autonomy.

    Reply
  7. Dan Ray

    Censorship, I suppose, is the imposition of limitation for a specific purpose. Why have a review? To what end? “Censorship” and “review” seem, at least to me, qualitatively different. “Review” is what editors do all the time. Is it censorship or merely circumspection? Why not have the students interview the “censors” in order to get their perspective on the matter?

    Reply
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