Top programs not immune to prior review

Henry Rome and Seth Zweifler have, between them, picked up just about every honor that a high school journalist can compete for.

They shared the National Scholastic Press Association's "Story of the Year" award for a 2008 piece in the Conestoga, Pa., High School Spoke documenting an illegal sports betting ring run by a classmate. Their newspaper's website was voted one of the top four in the nation by the Columbia Scholastic Press Association in its first year of operation. And last spring, Henry capped it off by bringing home the Journalism Education Association's "High School Journalist of the Year" award, the Heisman Trophy of high school reporting.

Had Henry and Seth piled up this record of achievements in any discipline other than journalism --if they were champion tennis players or debaters or clarinetists --their work would be hailed by their school district as an example for young people everywhere. That's not how it works with journalism.

After Henry and Seth topped their 2008 achievements with a June 2009 story exposing weaknesses in the school district's screening of employees for criminal records, Superintendent Daniel E. Waters responded with new policy directives that assert greater editorial control over student media. If the superintendent's proposals take effect, it will become the faculty adviser's job to prevent students from publishing anything "in poor taste as a reflection of the school" (a standard that goes beyond the censorship permissible under Pennsylvania Department of Education rules), and all student media will face mandatory prior review by administrators.

The use of prior review as a retaliatory tactic of intimidation is a depressingly familiar refrain for those in scholastic journalism. Even though the JEA --the most knowledgeable professional body --has condemned prior review as an unsound educational practice, that has not deterred district after district from inflicting it in response to student journalistic work that takes on uncomfortable issues. This was the fate of adviser Barb Thill's outstanding program at Illinois' Stevenson High School. Earlier this year, her district imposed prior review to punish the students and adviser for what officials called an insufficiently cautionary package of stories about the increase in casual "hook-ups" among teens. Thill found the heavy-handed oversight unbearable and stepped down as adviser, as her critics undoubtedly had hoped.

Administrators will argue that they are merely providing adult training and guidance, just as professional editors would in the real world. That's nonsense. No administrator has ever told a student journalist, "Let's send out another Freedom-of-Information request so we can confirm that this scandal goes all the way to the top," and none ever will. There is no "teaching of journalism" going on in the principal's office.

The way that Henry and Seth have gone about opposing heavier administrative control exemplifies their maturity and professionalism, and could serve as a road map for anyone in the same situation. They've been respectful but forceful in dealing with powerful district officials, they've engaged allies in the news media and alumni community, and they've kept the debate focused on the compelling educational policy reasons that favor uncensored journalism.

Ultimately, the solution to situations like the one at Conestoga may be a political one. School boards respond to the ballot box.

When those who've benefited from student journalism begin putting censorship on the public agenda and holding elected board members accountable for bad votes --or better still, running for school board themselves --then we'll see relief for the Henrys and Seths of the future.

-Frank LoMonte, executive director

Fall 2009, reports