Restraining student media
High school administrators shackle student journalists' right to freedom of the press
Student journalists across the country complained of administrative censorship this spring, from students being punished for protesting prior review of their student newspaper to school officials confiscating a publication that published editorials critical of the school.
At Clovis High School in New Mexico, three student journalists received in-school suspensions after they passed out fliers protesting their school’s prior review of the student newspaper.
School administrators issued the one-day suspensions to three Purple Press staff members, editor Matthew Coker and reporters Jarin Martin and Kerrie Geisler. Clovis School District lawyer John Kennedy said that students were punished after they did not obtain prior approval to distribute the fliers — which he said is required by district policy — and because the fliers contained libelous content.
“This is a flier critical of the superintendent calling the superintendent immature and immoral, and that is why they got a day of ISS,” Kennedy said.
The libel claim stemmed from a statement about why students objected to prior review, Kennedy said. “It’s illegal, first off. It’s also immoral and immature,” the flier stated.
The students said they created the fliers in response to the school administration’s reinstatement of prior review following the newspaper’s publication of stories critical of school policies.
According to the flier, titled “S.P.A.N.C.” for Student Press Against [Superintendent Neil] Nuttall’s Censorship, the students believe the administration’s prior review of the Purple Press is illegal. The flier explained that prior review “hinders us from writing stories you want to read and stops you from knowing about the truth about how Nuttall is running our school system.”
The flier urged students to contact Nuttall, but noted that the student journalists “want to keep this out of court.”
“If we aren’t allowed to have a student forum covering tough issues, then all we have is fluff. Fluff is nothing but stories about bunnies and how good the school system is,” the flier stated.
When the commercial media focused only on the allegations of improper behavior of a teacher embroiled in a sex scandal, student journalists at First Colonial High School in Virginia decided to publish an editorial on the teacher’s popularity.
Within hours of the editorial’s publication and distribution, Towne Crier adviser Paul Bennet sent an e-mail requesting the Virginia Beach school’s faculty confiscate all copies of the paper. Students say the newspapers were censored because of their content.
Students said the paper was confiscated because of a “fond farewell” editorial about a teacher whom police have charged with having sex with a 17-year-old student. The editorial discussed the teacher’s popularity, but made no mention of the allegation, as Principal Hazel Jessee requested, students said.
“It delegitimizes our standing as a newspaper when we just write fluff,” news editor Ethan Guild said, noting that the scandal was newsworthy, but that the staff did not have time to write a news story because of publication deadlines.
School officials said the newspaper’s confiscation was not content-related.
The newspapers were confiscated because the principal did not have a chance to review the newspaper prior to publication, said Nancy Soschia, public relations coordinator for Virginia Beach City Schools.
District policy mandates prior review, but does not specify that the principal review the paper. According to district policy, “The sponsor will review all materials to be published.” For this issue of the paper, Bennet said he reviewed the paper and allowed its publication, which was a “poor judgment call.”
Initially, students planned to appeal the confiscation, but after staff disagreement, editors withdrew the appeal, editor in chief Adrianne Jeffries said. Since the confiscation, Jeffries said the Towne Crier staff has not made an effort to write investigative stories, sticking to “school announcement stories.”
“[The] school is not journalist-friendly,” Jeffries said.
Jeffries said she was furious when she heard about the confiscation and that she did not believe the administration’s reasons for the censorship.
“It just shows the blatant lack of respect that my school’s administration has for student journalism,” she said.
When student journalists at Freemont Junior High School in Arizona saw white students go unpunished for wearing prohibited bandanas while Hispanic students sporting bandanas were “dress coded,” the Purple People Reader published a column calling for either the elimination of the bandana ban or equality in dress code enforcement.
Following the publication of the January issue, Principal Dwayne Priester confiscated all 1,400 copies of the paper because of concerns that the column might stir racial tensions, school officials said.
Students submitted the newspaper to Priester and three English teachers for review prior to publication, but neither the principal nor the English teachers raised concerns about the column, editor Kristen DeBenon said. Students said, however, that the principal objected to the column after he saw it in print.
Student said Priester claims he affixed a note on the bandana column, ordering students to omit it, but staffers maintain they saw no note.
“He gave us the OK to print it,” DeBenon said.
Students said the principal did not catch obvious grammar and spelling mistakes when he reviewed the paper prior to publication, leading some students to question whether Priester actually read the paper.
Students wrote to Superintendent Debra Duvall, requesting the release of the newspapers. They did not hear back from Duvall. DeBenon said students attempted to bring up their concerns at a school board meeting but were told they could only discuss the censorship if their concerns were placed on the agenda prior to the meeting.
“It’s made me realize sometimes things aren’t going to be easy, but you need to fight for them anyway,” DeBenon said. “You shouldn’t have what you say or do held against you. That’s what America’s about. It’s about freedom. You can’t be an American and not grant other Americans freedom.”
The January issue will not be distributed to students. After the incident, the principal, not students, take the paper to the printer.
Lely High School senior Renato Talhadas omitted his column “When Teachers Go Bad” from the March issue of The Trojan Epic because school officials asked him to rewrite the column. Because he did not have time to make requested changes, the Florida teenager ran “censored” under the heading “Editor’s Column,” as suggested by adviser Jackie Hagerman.
Two school officials who were designated by the principal reviewed The Trojan Epic prior to its publication and requested content changes.
“‘Change this,’” Talhadas said he was told by a school staff member. “‘Let’s remove this paragraph. Let’s take this out.’ [My response was], ‘Wait up! You’re not letting my voice be spoken here so I’m not going to let this be published at all.’”
The column praised some of Talhadas’ favorite teachers but also criticized unnamed teachers who complained about low pay and long hours.
“If once they could get their lazy butts out of their chair from checking e-mails and trading at eBay, and actually teach class, I would be much obliged,” the column stated.
Talhadas said Principal Jerry Primus asked him to change the column because its publication coincided with standardized testing at the school. Primus’ request was made the day before the paper was to be sent to the printer.
The school was trying to create a positive atmosphere for students during the standardized testing process, Hagerman said. Had the column run when testing was over, it would not have been a problem, she said.
School officials said the newspaper was not censored.
Primus said his request for changes had nothing to do with standardized testing. He said he asked Talhadas not to identify any of the teachers so they would not feel “singled out.” Had Talhadas had more time to change the column before the deadline, “the story would have come out the correct way,” Primus said.
Arizona, Clovis High School, First Colonial High School, Freemont Junior High School, New Mexico, Purple People Reader, Purple Press, reports, Spring 2004, Towne Crier, Virginia