Censorship on the rise


Administrators angered by investigative journalism or unhappy with student work increasingly bully school-sponsored media





For the past several months, while America has been at war to preserve freedoms abroad, many school-sponsored publications have been losing some of their most fundamental freedoms at home.

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Censorship is alive and well in high schools around the country, with administrators routinely silencing the free expression of student journalists in a variety of ways and for myriad reasons.

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In some instances, principals and administrators pulled stories simply because they did not approve of the school's official student newspaper reporting the truth instead of only providing a public relations outlet for the school. In others, unpopular or offensive opinions published in a newspaper led to increased administrative control over student journalists.

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Censorship complaints lodged with the Student Press Law Center have risen tremendously in recent years, with an increase from 1,443 in 1996 to 2,129 in 2000. SPLC attorneys estimate the number continues to grow.

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Censorship alive and well

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Administrators at Utica School District in Michigan pulled an article and editorial in March about a previously publicized lawsuit against the school for alleged health problems related to the location of the district's bus depot.

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Students working for the award-winning Arrow wrote a news-analysis piece documenting a local resident's claim that fumes from the school buses caused his lung cancer, for which he has sued the district. The editorial pushed for the relocation of the depot, which is also near an elementary school and playing fields.

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Principal Richard Machesky pulled the items, citing "factual errors" and irresponsible journalism. In a letter to the Arrow, Machesky said he did not feel this was censorship, and Superintendent Joan Sergent supported his decision.

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Arrow

editor Julie Wojciechowski said the staff was "upset and confused" by the censorship and author of the article Katy Dean said she is willing to sue the school district if necessary.\n

A local newspaper, the Macomb Daily, later published all the pulled items and a column attacking the school for its actions.

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At Cheyenne East High School in Wyoming, student journalists at the Thunderbolt were told in February not to run a story about two debate team students who vandalized police cars in December.

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Principal Sam Mirich told writer Pat Courtney and editor Rachel Kildow that he did not want the story to run because "the two individuals are still in the building … [and] it would be singling them out and would be more embarrassment." Local newspapers had already published stories about the incident.

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While Mirich denied that the students' participation on the debate team motivated his prior restraint of the article, journalism adviser Suzy Quinn said the debate coach specifically told her not to run a story on the students.

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An opinion article critical of illegal immigrants published in Novato High School's Buzz sparked a debate among residents in the California community and has led the principal to be overly cautious when reviewing the paper, editor Stella Robertson said.

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After Andrew Smith's commentary ran last November, blasting illegal immigrants and saying they should "stay out of our country," many students walked out of class and angry parents came to a school forum about tolerance.

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Principal Lisa Schwartz, apparently fearing another community backlash, held up production on the following issue of the Buzz to review it closely prior to publication.

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Robertson said she feared the prior review problem would affect the Buzz for some time. Robertson and student journalist Ruth Osorio received a Northern California Society of Professional Journalists' 2002 James Madison Freedom of Information Award for their coverage of student journalist rights following publication of the article.

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In Indiana, catching a breaking news story nearly tarnished a student editor's academic record when his Plainfield High School administrators suspended him in March for photographing a senior prank for the school paper.

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Jason Pearce was suspended along with 25 seniors who jumped, fully clothed, into the school swimming pool during a hallway-passing period, merely for photographing the prank. Pearce had planned to use the photos for a story on the prank to run in the Quaker Shaker.

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Principal William Wakefield said he punished Pearce along with the pranksters because he was in an off-limits area and his presence as a reporter was "inciting kids jumping in the pool," a claim that was criticized by professional journalists.

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After Pearce fought the punishment, his suspension was reduced and erased from his record in exchange for researching and writing an essay on the history of high school censorship.

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The threat of censorship has subsided at Bryant High School in Arkansas, leaving editor Holly Ballard cautious but hopeful.

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The battle between The Prospective staff and administrators ignited after the paper started covering school board meetings and printing articles critical of Superintendent Vicky Logan.

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Principal Danny Spadoni tightened his fist when a feature writer decided to run a series on discrimination at Bryant in February. The first two articles ran without event but the last one was pulled after students felt singled out by questionnaires asking about homosexuality.

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The principal proposed strict guidelines for future publications, which were opposed by the staff. No changes have been made but Ballard suspects some will be implemented by next year.

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After the incident, adviser Margaret Sorrows was in jeopardy of losing her job before her contract was renewed in April.

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At Phoenix Central High School in Arizona, principal Nancy Kloss confiscated The Central Voice the day before distribution after Black Student Union members rallied against a controversial commentary.

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The commentary, written by an African-American student, addressed unharmonious relationships among black students at Central, including a negative opinion about some of the girls in the organization, though no names were mentioned.

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The incident caused the Voice staff to address the issue of censorship in future articles.

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In another Arizona school, a principal who routinely reviews and censors stories in the Trojan Times prior to publication acts as if the newspaper is her personal forum, despite the fact that her district does not require her to review the paper, editor Joe Colletti said.

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Whenever student journalists at Paradise Valley High School in Phoenix voice opinions critical of school policies or cast the school in a negative light, principal Denise Birdwell censors them, Colletti said.

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After an opinion article criticized the administration and parents for their stance on illicit teen dancing, Birdwell responded, "Even opinions in school papers have limits. You may not challenge or slam the school or administrators. Sorry! Clean this up."

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After the Trojan Times contacted The Arizona Republic about the censorship last October, Birdwell said she would try and resolve her differences with the newspaper.

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Sex-related content suppressed

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No three-letter word sets the teen-age mind racing and instills fear in high school administrators like "sex."

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All around the country, principals pushing conservative ideals and morals have tried to censor stories and even yearbook entries dealing with heterosexual and homosexual relationships, safe sex, teen pregnancies, and sexually transmitted diseases.

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At Dover High School in New Hampshire, principal Robert Pederson said in December that a photo portraying the 2002 "class sweethearts" could not run in the yearbook superlatives section because they were elected as the result of a write-in vote.

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The ballot had asked for students to select one male and one female candidate for the superlative category, but students overwhelmingly chose lesbians Nicole Salisbury and Ashley Lagasse – who received 77 percent of the votes – as their "sweethearts."

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The yearbook staff had decided to eliminate the category rather than name the next couple, a male and a female, as the "sweethearts," but Superintendent Armand LaSleva intervened, saying the vote was valid and the girls would retain their title and appear in the yearbook.

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Administrators at Tampa's Plant High School in Florida, held up distribution of the Pep O'Plant after reading a features column supporting the availability of condoms at the senior prom and a survey question asking five people if they thought having condoms available at the dance was a good idea.

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Christina Hernandez, the features editor who wrote the story "Face It: Sex Happens" a week before the prom, said she was writing out of a concern for her classmates' safety, since "it's a reality, teen-agers have sex."

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Administrators at the school disagreed that that was the case, saying the article was inconsistent with the school curriculum.

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"We teach abstinence," district spokesman Mark Hart said. "A principal can make an editorial decision on a student newspaper. It is not protected free speech."

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After further review, principal Eric Bergholm allowed distribution of the paper.

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Parents in Washington cried foul and claimed a violation of their rights under the federal Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment after The Apple Leaf ran a series on sexuality in Wenatchee High School.

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The law, also known as the Hatch Amendment, gives parents the right to review instructional material before it is included in the curriculum, though no court has ever suggested that it covers student newspaper content.

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The public outcry prompted principal Mike Franza to put into practice a policy of prior review of the student newspaper.

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In the series, the straightforward discussion of topics like homosexuality and abortion was accompanied by a step-by-step drawing similar to the one inside condom boxes explaining how to put on a condom – the primary cause of the community outcry.

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Fight for a free student press continues

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The above cases are only a few of the many instances nationwide where student journalists and their advisers are pitted against administrators in an ongoing battle for press freedom, a battle which shows no signs of going away.


reports, Spring 2002