High school officials roast student papers

Though some say respect for the First Amendment is making a comeback, student journalists, administrators and advisers are still working to find the balance between students’ free-speech rights and schools’ responsibilities. The majority of Americans do not think the First Amendment goes too far in protecting the rights of Americans, according to a survey released in June by the First Amendment Center in collaboration with the American Journalism Review. Poll results show, however, that they are dissatisfied with the amount of freedom of expression that high school students have — and the student journalists who have been in the forefronts of censorship battles this summer would likely agree. Students have spent hours cutting a controversial political cartoon out of a newspaper. Others organized a benefit concert to independently finance an issue of their student newspaper. And two more students delayed distribution of an editorial that was rejected from the school’s newspaper while school board members crafted a prior review policy.While only 15 percent of those who responded to the national survey think students like these have too much freedom, almost one-third of respondents believe they have too little freedom.At a Rhode Island high school, students worried about administrative backlash decided to cut out a political cartoon from 2,500 copies of the Bird’s Eye View newspaper in May before distributing it to students.The cartoon poked fun at the school district’s superintendent, presenting him as superhero who could fix leaky roofs, remove asbestos and remedy electrical problems. The cartoon was a response to ongoing delays in the school’s auditorium renovation.Cumberland High School teacher and newspaper adviser Nancy Dandurand showed the cartoon to Principal Stephen Driscoll even though the district did not have a prior review policy. He then asked her not to print it, she said.Though Dandurand explained to students their rights, she wanted the staff to make the decision.They voted to cut the cartoon, mostly because they did not want the issue to be confiscated or Dandurand to lose her job, editor Tessa Tomassini said. “We wanted to do what was best for the paper,” she said.The noticeable hole on the bottom corner of Page 3 prompted questions from many at the school. Teachers focused lessons around First Amendment rights during the week after the paper was distributed, Dandurand said.Student journalists in New York decided they would still put out their final issue of the year as an independent publication after the adviser cancelled the issue as punishment for two editors’ “poor” decision.In the May issue of Ithaca High School’s The Tattler, editors published a mock personal ad that had been submitted anonymously to the newspaper. The adviser, Stephanie Vinch, did not see the advertisement before publication, as is her normal practice, and suspected students might have intentionally sneaked it past her, editor Adrienne Clermont said.But rather then waste the articles students had already been working on, about 25 students decided to put out the paper by themselves. They raised $300 for the issue with a fund-raising concert and advertising sales, and they used their home computers to edit and design the paper. On June 9, The June Issue, a clearly marked 20-page, one-time-only independent publication, was distributed to students.In an editorial about the decision, the cancellation is called “a dangerous precedent for the freedom of the press at Ithaca High School.”“Know that this paper is proof that a group of students can join together and make something despite an uncooperative administration,” it read further. “It was partly a labor of love; but more importantly, it was a labor of necessity.”And in a Virginia school district, students who wish to distribute nonschool-sponsored publications on school grounds will now have to submit them for review by a school administrator.In May, three Blacksburg High School students attempted to distribute an editorial that was cut from the school’s newspaper, the Ink Wave. They agreed to postpone distribution until the district could clarify the policy for nonschool-sponsored publications. The Montgomery County School Board approved a policy that includes prior review by the principal and an appeals process that gives school board members final say.“The policy merely states what the law is, and the purpose of the policy was to give principals some guidance on what the law is,” said W. Wat Hopkins, a school board member and communications professor at Virginia Tech University. Hopkins said the policy follows the standard for censorship of student expression created from the 1969 Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which states that administrators can only prohibit material that would prevent normal and routine conduct of classes or creates a significant likelihood of harm to people or property.The policy also prohibits distribution of material that is libelous, obscene or advocates criminal acts under federal, state or local laws. Hopkins said that if the policy had been in place before the three students tried to pass out the editorial, the editorial would have been approved for distribution.

Fall 2004, reports