Image Control


Student newspapers find concerns about community reaction are playing a greater role in administrative censorship





School administrators all over the country have hacked away at student free expression in the guise of "protecting" the local community from exposure to offensive opinions or controversial topics in school newspapers.

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Whether in the context of student papers seen by members of the wider community, or that of student newspapers printed as supplements to a local paper, administrators are far more likely to censor news that goes beyond the schoolhouse gate.

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"You constantly hear administrators talking about image and control and effects on the community," said John Bowen, chair of the Journalism Education Association's Scholastic Press Rights Committee.

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The results can be devastating to a budding journalist.

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At Cody High School in Wyoming, principal Butch Reder confiscated and destroyed about 400 copies of Equus in December, fearing community outrage over a satirical commentary on respecting one's elders.

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In a meeting with the Equus staff after the incident, Reder said he had no interest in reviewing the paper prior to printing, but he would not think twice about confiscating future issues if he felt they crossed the line again.

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"The article in the paper was just inappropriate," Reder said of the point/counterpoint commentary. "You're talking about people in our community who give a lot of money to our school."

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Editor Adam Nace said he worried that the Equus staff might begin to censor themselves as a result of Reder's actions. "We've tried not to do that, but I have to go over everything else so carefully. I read things and think that someone might take something out of context and then this might happen again."

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Similarly, principal Doyle Dean at Plano High School in Texas forced the Wildcat Tales staff to remove a center spread on sex-related issues partly because of his perception that the community would react negatively.

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"This publication is disseminated widely to parents and younger children, so the maturity of the readers was also involved," Dean said.

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Editor Nick Pavlov said sub-school principal Michael Wetchensky, a former journalist and journalism adviser, told the staff they would have to "dance some politics" to avoid censorship and to be mindful that they are "in the Bible belt."

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Since Dean did not review the paper until just before the students' deadline, Pavlov chose to leave white space where stories and pictures had been pulled.

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Pavlov said that while he did not plan to take legal action against the school for the censorship, he wanted to rally the support of his classmates and the local media to end this kind of restriction of the Wildcat Tales.

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In Missouri, principal John Ruddy of William Chrisman High School in Kansas City also pulled a story from the school paper because he said it was inappropriate for community readers.

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Student journalists at the school were upset when Ruddy censored an article critical of the administration's response to public displays of affection, particularly among homosexuals.

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"Their words are read by a lot of other people, so they need to be responsible in what they do," Ruddy said in defense of his decision. "It goes out to the community, so we need to make sure we realize our audience."

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Since Ruddy pulled the story at the last minute, students had to run a disclaimer on the front page saying a story was "too controversial" to appear in the paper.

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To be or not to be distributed beyond the school

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Some high school newspapers strapped for funds pay their way by seeking out local advertising revenue and printing the school newspaper as a supplement in the community newspaper, an arrangement that sometimes leads student journalists to come under closer scrutiny by administrators.

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This is precisely what happened at Middlesex High School in Virginia, when principal Rebecca Gates censored stories in two successive issues of the Big Blue Review in February. The school is in Saluda, a rural community in the southeastern part of the state.

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When sex-related articles were pulled from a Valentine's Day issue, students wrote stories about censorship for the next issue, which were also pulled.

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"I felt that the content of the [Valentine's Day] issue was inappropriate for a younger readership and more appropriate for a sex-education class," Gates said. "Our student newspaper is inserted into the local paper and goes beyond the school's audience."

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Review

adviser Carl McWhorter said that if the paper did not appear as a supplement of the Southside Sentinel, the administration would not feel such a need to censor controversial stories. \n

McWhorter said the Review publishes eight issues a year at a printing cost of $1,000 per issue. Since the school district only allots the paper $1,000 for the entire year, it must rely on outside advertising revenue and an agreement with the Sentinel to supplement printing and distribution costs.

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Although he has proposed printing the paper solely for distribution in the school – 1,000-copy runs at an annual cost of $5,000 – the district has refused to come up with the money. For now, the Review must keep its current agreement and circulate in the local community.

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"The problem here is evidently that the increased readership of not only the students and staff of the high school, but of the entire community, has the administrators overstepping their bounds and trying to control content for their own better public image," said Terry Nelson, Dow Jones Newspaper Fund's National Journalism Teacher of the Year and journalism adviser at Muncie Central High School in Indiana.

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Nelson said that advisers must be cautious when considering entering such printing agreements.

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"Whereas the situation sounds like a win-win for the school's finances and the newspaper's readership, it actually is a losing one for freedom of the student press," she said. "Regardless of who prints their newspaper … the students [should] not have fewer rights in regard to the First Amendment than any other public school student."

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Unfortunately, student newspapers do not always have a choice.

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The effects of censorship in high schools like those above are often significant, said Dale Harrison, director of journalism at Auburn University in Alabama.

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"Journalism is so much more than a set of concepts and skills," Harrison said, "it is a culture. Students in high school and college absorb the journalism culture in which they are trained. If a school's culture teaches a fear of publishing the truth, students will carry that with them beyond graduation."

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Striking a balance

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Communities that are well-versed in the role of journalism in a democratic society, and the subsequent need to foster quality journalism by allowing student journalists to perform their task as reporters and watchdogs, can make a difference when oppressive administrations try to keep student journalists at bay.

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"Journalism educators hold a strong belief that some things can be taught in the classroom, but that real journalism is learned by hands-on reporting," Harrison said. "Student reporters must get their hands dirty digging through hidden agendas and official spin to find the truth. If they are trained in a culture that forbids such reporting, they will be at a severe disadvantage as reporters after graduation."

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The Review staff members at Middlesex High School decided to fight their principal's censorship by taking their concerns to the very community members she claimed she was protecting.

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By having local residents sign a petition to overhaul restrictive guidelines in the school's publication policy, the journalists worked with the community to see that their First Amendment rights were not trampled upon again.

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Engaging the community in overcoming administrative censorship not only emboldens student journalists and strengthens their awareness of their rights, but it better prepares them for a future in journalism.

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"There is no greater censor than personal fear," Harrison said. "Student journalists who fear the retribution of powerful school administrators will never learn how to tackle a difficult story"


reports, Spring 2002