Hazelwood expanded principals' authority to censor — but not all school leaders choose to exercise the power

When Nelson Beaudoin became principal of Kennebunk High School in Kennebunk, Maine, seven years ago, he said students thought his philosophy about free speech was novel, even a bit strange. But within a few years, the school had started a student newspaper and a student senate, and Beaudoin had developed a reputation as one of its most approachable administrators.

With the help of a grant from the Nashville-based First Amendment Center, Beaudoin created an example of the benefits of school policies that advocate free speech.

Beaudoin and principals like him represent an often-overlooked group — administrators who choose to reject the power they could exercise under Hazelwood.

“I think it’s much easier to have the kids view you as someone who understands them and listens to them, and cares about what they think,” Beaudoin said.

Aside from being a principal, Beaudoin is a well-known education consultant and author of several books on education reform and student speech.

About four years ago, Beaudoin’s school received a grant through the First Amendment Center. The group was expanding its First Amendment Schools project, and Kennebunk High School was among five schools added to the inaugural class of 11 in May 2004, receiving $12,000 a year for three years to support free-speech initiatives.

“Our premise is that everyone may be born with their inherent rights, but we are not born with knowing how to use them,” said Molly McCloskey, project director of First Amendment Schools.

To date, almost 100 institutions officially have adopted the program’s philosophy; the program is directly working with 17 schools from California to New York.

McCloskey said the program fosters a vibrant press at its schools. Some funding the initial schools received was put toward buying newsroom equipment, as well as sending faculty to receive training in First Amendment law.

“One of the things that we have really focused on is the parallel tracks of freedom of the press and teaching journalistic ethics,” McCloskey said. “We gradually sort of withdrew adult supervision.”

Even before working with First Amendment Schools, Beaudoin had taken prior review of the school’s newspaper off the table.

“We’ve been able to walk that balance between things being so sterile that nobody wants to read them and things being so outrageous that it creates all sorts of controversy,” he said.

Sometimes, Beaudoin said, the newspaper staff will come to him with a “red flag” issue, to give him a heads-up on an upcoming controversial story.

“I’m not somebody who is big into protest,” Beaudoin said. “I’m more into compromise. A lot of time controversies happen in school when people draw lines, as opposed to communicating well.”

From his early years as a basketball coach, Beaudoin says his experience as an educator has shown him the value in supporting student speech. Involving his players in the decision-making process led them to play more inspired, Beaudoin said.

“I’ve found it worked — the more I gave kids responsibility, the more they participated,” Beaudoin said.

When Kennebunk’s student paper, The Rampage, published a survey in September about students drinking at a recent dance, Beaudoin didn’t object. Beaudoin had faith in his students’ judgment.

“They did a very responsible thing,” Beaudoin said. “They put in a qualifier in there saying that this is a survey of only 44 kids out of 80. They said it wasn’t a scientific survey.”

The survey showed that each student who attended the dance knew at least one person who was there intoxicated.

“Obviously putting that in the newspaper creates a funny world for the high school principal,” Beaudoin said. “But at the same time, not putting it in would be a funnier world.”

Newspaper staffers at Kennebunk High say they appreciate the trust Beaudoin puts in them.

“We’re really in a great position in that, pretty much, as long as we have some kind of journalistic purpose we really can write just about anything we want,” said Ben Goodman, managing editor of The Rampage. “Certainly any red flags the adviser or the editorial boards find, we run by school administration, and they’ll give us their input.”

Goodman said when the newspaper went to the administration with the alcohol survey, administrators told him that although they had doubts it was accurate, “we are not going to tell you not to publish it.”

Molly Pierce, The Rampage’s adviser, came to Kennebunk High School six years ago with no intention of teaching another journalism class.

After teaching journalism at two schools in Colorado — one of seven states protected by student free-expression laws — Pierce was nervous, concerned that there might not be enough freedom to run the paper properly. When she got to Kennebunk High School, the newspaper had been dormant for several years. After a year of teaching, the rest of the English department convinced Pierce to start publishing the paper again.

Pierce said Beaudoin’s commitment to a free student press helped grow the newspaper into the popular class it is today.

“I feel that Nelson has our back 100 percent,” Pierce said.

In the hot seat

Some principals have come under fire from their supervisors, and occasionally their communities, for protecting the student press.
In December 2005, the quiet, mid-western town of Columbus, Ind., was thrust into the media spotlight when Columbus North High School’s The Triangle published an article about the dangers of oral sex. Newspaper staffers had gone to the principal, David Clark, to alert him about it. Clark, impressed with the quality of the article, did not object to running it.

“I went out on a limb and I trusted that what they were doing was right, this was something that needed to be heard,” Clark said.

After the story ran, members of the community complained about the piece, with several calling for Clark’s resignation. The district’s administration was at odds with Clark as well as the students, but Clark stood by his decision to let the story run.

The incident eventually gained the attention of national media.

“It got to be a circus as far as I was concerned,” Clark said. “There were calls from the O’Reilly Factor, calls from Geraldo, they wanted me to appear on their show and debate their subject. My response to those guys was, ‘No, that’s not what this is about, this is about my students.’”

For tenaciously backing The Triangle’s piece, the Newseum, Student Press Law Center and National Scholastic Press Association gave Clark a Courage in Student Journalism Award in 2006.

Over time, the public’s attention moved elsewhere. But in retrospect, Clark said the experience benefited his students. The newspaper’s staff in particular, he says, got a first-hand lesson on the First Amendment.

“They will know these laws — Hazelwood, Tinker — and now the more current laws that are coming out, in terms of Morse v. Frederick,” Clark said. “They’ll know these laws. They understand, they’ve been through them and they’ve lived it.”

Alan Weintraut, adviser to Annandale High School’s award-winning newspaper, A-Blast, said he feels fortunate his school has always been one where the paper can operate free of prior review or censorship.

Weintraut, who has been advising at the Annandale, Va. school for seven years, has never worked under prior review and said he has told all three principals he has worked for that he never will.

Weintraut said administrators often invoke Hazelwood because they fear their schools could be sued over articles published in a student newspaper.

“We are living in an age of increasing accountability and authority in the school, and that has to be vested with a person — the principal,” Weintraut said. “It’s just one more task that is added to the very long list of school activities that the principal feels that he is empowered to govern.”

But liability does not extend as far as some principals imagine, said Mike Hiestand, legal consultant to the Student Press Law Center. Hiestand said there has been no published court decision in which a school district has ever been held liable for material published in student media. Some are sued, but Hiestand said it happens rarely, and most cases are settled before they go anywhere.

“If you want to eliminate a liability at your school, get rid of your football team,” Hiestand said.

Like-minded principals

Warren Watson, director of J-IDEAS, a program at Ball State University dedicated to advancing high school journalism, said interacting directly with principals on First Amendment issues may be one of the best ways to keep censorship — and Hazelwood — out of high school newsrooms.
“We can reach a higher level of First Amendment awareness not just by talking to advisers, but by working with principals and administrators to set a good environment where the First Amendment is encouraged,” Watson said.

Watson and the rest of the staff at J-IDEAS recently created a program to help educate and encourage principals to support free speech in their schools.

Started in May 2007, the inaugural members of the Principal’s Coalition for the First Amendment are educators who took Ball State’s graduate course in free-speech law for principals and administrators.

The course is designed to help educators see the benefits of student speech on campus, as well as familiarize them with the complexities of cases such as Hazelwood.

“One of the goals is to better educate administrators and principals about the law, to point out that the First Amendment can be an asset for the administrator, not something that’s a yoke around your neck,” Watson said. “The main goal is to familiarize administrators about what Hazelwood does and doesn’t do, and the other cases that create this labyrinth of legality.”

Watson said he hopes the coalition will extend the philosophy behind Ball State’s course into more high schools. By connecting like-minded administrators, Watson said the coalition will create examples other principals can follow.

“We saw the potential for the development of the organization, a group of people who could then showcase best practices and model principles, showing a lot of good things about principals who exhibit strong support of the First Amendment in the governing of their schools,” Watson said.

Others have seen the value in reaching out to educators who want to shed Hazelwood’s legacy. In October 2007, the McCormick Tribune Foundation announced a $40,000 grant to help the coalition to develop its ideas.

For student journalists who work with administrators sympathetic to a free press, the experience can leave them with a better sense of civic duty and appreciation for the Constitution. The classic mindset of the educator lends itself to viewing the student as someone whose opinions need to be tempered by a higher authority, Beaudoin said. But Beaudoin thinks differently.

“We go into education thinking that we are going to help kids, help them develop and improve,” Beaudoin said. “Yet there is something in us that subconsciously wants to keep them incapable and quiet and silent.

“I don’t know why that happens in education, but I think it’s kind of a subconscious thing. It makes teachers and educators feel needed, and I think we need to believe that kids are capable and thoughtful and help them when they stumble.”

Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, reports, Winter 2007-08