Ill. school board imposes directive for student newspaper to use courtesy titles in stories

ILLINOIS -- Students at Harrisburg High School, in Harrisburg, Ill., are forced to use courtesy titles in editorial and opinion content in the student newspaper when referring to faculty, staff or members of the school board after the Board of Education imposed a new directive last week.

"The school board's concern is with content, so this is a reaction to content they didn't like," said Purple Clarion adviser Cathy Wall. "They felt that the students had been disrespectful to their new principal, and so they were trying to make their editorial comments more respectful by adding Mr. and Mrs."

Last month, the school board told the students that they must use courtesy titles when referring to members of the school community in all sections of the newspaper, following an editorial that criticized the school principal in the Dec. 15 issue of the Clarion. After students and Wall appeared at a school board meeting last week, the rule was amended to affect only editorial and opinion content.

Harrisburg Community Unit 3 Superintendent Dennis Smith said the editorial was "disrespectful to the principal in content and attitude" and believed the school board was prompted to create the rule because of "the perceived disrespect of the students' principal in how she was addressed."

"When the adviser informed the Board that some newspapers make an editorial decision to use so-called courtesy titles in editorial and opinion pieces only, the Board amended their directive to do that, which the adviser said was acceptable," Smith said. "In other words, the Board found a common ground which would meet their expectations and stay within writing guidelines."

This rule contradicts the Associated Press Stylebook, a reference for writers, which states that courtesy titles are only to be used "in direct quotations or in other special situations." While most news sources follow AP style guidelines, Smith said he was told by Wall that it is "an acceptable practice in major newspapers."

Senior Molly Williams believes there is more behind the new directive than meets the eye.

"When we went to the school board meeting and we tried to get them to revoke the directive, they basically came out and said that it was about content and that they didn't like what we were writing," said Williams, an editor of the Purple Clarion. "I know they are just putting this up as a front, this whole Mr. and Mrs. thing. I know they are just doing it for a front because they haven't ever really liked what we have written about them. It's almost like they can't take constructive criticism well."

Wall said members of the school board were "disrespectful" to the students during last week's meeting, and the students are "just angry at this point and time.""Changing what page it appears on doesn't change anything," Wall said.

The upcoming January issue will include courtesy titles within the opinion and editorial articles, and both Wall and Williams feel the school board is censoring the publication's content.

"I feel that they are trying to censor what we write. I really do," Williams said. "I feel that they are trying to get us to stop writing about them."

However, Smith does not believe this is an act of censorship.

"The adviser said no disrespect is intended in using last names," Smith said. "The Board is asking students to show respect. Thus, we are arguing form, not content. If no opinion or position is being banned I don't see what is being censored."

An editorial explaining the students' experience at the school board meeting will appear in the issue, along with an editor's note explaining the change in style in the opinion and editorial articles. The editorial expresses the students' "concern that while they are being told to use courtesy titles, they are being treated without courtesy," Wall said.

Williams said the editorial is about respect.

"If they want respect, they should respect us," she said. "We (also) have a feature article about respect (in the issue)." Wall said she has no choice but to enforce the new rule, even though she doesn't agree with it.

"I have been directed as an employee of the district to see that that happens," Wall said, "so we don't really have much of a choice at this point in time because if we don't (use courtesy titles), I would be considered insubordinate."

Williams said she does not agree with using the titles but understands that her adviser must follow the directive from the school board.

"I feel that it is ridiculous, but we really don't have a choice since it is a directive," Williams said. "She (Wall) is telling us to do this, so we don't want them to fire her because she is an amazing woman, and she is an amazing teacher, and we could not do this really without her."

Ill., Harrisburg, Illinois, news, Purple Clarion