Student journalists at one Kentucky high school put a new twist on an old practice to avoid their school's content restrictions
The threat of censorship creates a choice for student journalists: compromise or publish elsewhere.
This spring, several journalism students at duPont Manual High School in Louisville, Ky., chose the latter.
The resulting publication, The Red Pen, was a 12-page independent student newspaper, along with an accompanying website.
“For bureaucratic, safety and other reasons, we got stopped from attacking the stories we most wanted to pursue,” they wrote in a letter from the editors. “It wasn’t any specific person’s fault, but rather the trend toward suppressing controversy that exists across America and across the world.
“We knew through experience that this trend was nearly impossible to fight on school grounds, where rules, and, to some degree, conformity — at least on the administrative level — are highly valued. So we decided we needed The Red Pen.”
Zoe Schaver, one of The Red Pen’s editorial board members, said she and other students decided to create their own publication after multiple controversies at duPont Manual, including some before their time at the school. One of those issues involved the 2007-08 yearbook.
Members of the yearbook staff wanted to do a spread on gay and lesbian students, Schaver said, but there was a problem with the final spread.
Liz Palmer, a journalism teacher and adviser at Manual, said in an email that the mother of one of the students who was named in a caption told the principal she did not want the story in the yearbook.
After speaking with the mother, Principal Larry Wooldridge decided the yearbook staff would have to cut the pages out of the yearbook, Palmer said. The editors tried to negotiate with Wooldridge, but a compromise could not be reached and the students followed through with cutting out the pages, she said.
Schaver was not a student at Manual in 2007-08, but she said former staffers explained the basics of what had happened to teach younger students about the problems they had with censorship.
Students want to have controversial material in the yearbook “because it’s more hard-hitting,” Schaver said, and it’s frustrating when those stories and spreads can’t be published.
She said Wooldridge has always been hesitant about anything “that could affect Manual’s image as the best public school in Kentucky.”
When a teacher was caught in 2011 “doing things with a student,” the editor of the school’s online publication, manualredeye.com, wanted to publish a story about what had happened, but the principal only wanted a blurb saying the teacher had resigned, Schaver said.
Another issue that led to the creation of The Red Pen didn’t even involve school-sponsored media.
During the 2010-11 school year, Manual was starting its first student government in 20 years, and every student who was running for office had a statement on what they wanted to change about the school, Schaver said.
Wooldridge “made small edits that ended up being a big deal,” she said, including omitting a student’s reference to being gay and softening another student’s opinion about the need for more attention on the school’s visual arts magnet.
Schaver said students outside of the yearbook staff heard about that controversy.
“It was a huge uproar,” she said, “but it was pretty brief.”
With these issues in mind, along with others that would come up later, Schaver said she and the other students began talking about creating a publication that would allow them to do different types of journalism, including more literary journalism, than what the publications at Manual offered.
Creating a new publication
The first issue of The Red Pen was published in May, but Schaver said it took months of preparation.
Emily McConville, another editorial board member, said the conversations for The Red Pen really started rolling in January. Once the decision was made to create an alternative publication, the students began recruiting other students.
The staff wasn’t as organized as it could’ve have been, Schaver said, and some of the staff “fell by the wayside,” leaving a core editorial board of six members: Patrick Haertel, Schaver and McConville, who were juniors at the time, and Kelsey McKim, Dakota Sherek and Virginia Johnson, who were seniors.
Johnson gets credit for coming up with The Red Pen, which Schaver called a “perfect” name.
“The red pen is censorship, basically,” Schaver said, “and it evokes kind of an image of journalism and writing.” The name is also a play on the name of the school’s official student newspaper, Manual RedEye.
As writers for an independent publication, the staff of The Red Pen doesn’t have any oversight from the administration at Manual. And while the journalism teachers at the school were not involved in the creation of the publication, they were supportive of the students’ work, Manville said.
Palmer, the journalism adviser, said she was proud that the students took the initiative to publish independently. She had helped publish an independent newspaper herself while in college, so she said she “understood the power of youth adopting their own voice.”
Palmer was the yearbook adviser in 2007-08 when the students had to cut out pages, and said she learned from that experience not to place herself in the middle of the students and administration. She said she tries to remove herself from situations and let students go to the principal directly.
Before 2008, the school did not have prior review, Palmer said. Now, Wooldridge approves any “controversial” material before it goes to print, but he delegates power to Palmer to tell the students which stories fit that category.
If Palmer thinks Wooldridge would want to see a story, she tells the students to write it out exactly as they would want to see it published and take the idea to Wooldridge for his consideration.
If he has concerns with the story, the students can determine if a compromise would not violate the journalistic integrity of their stories. Palmer said Wooldridge’s concerns are usually pretty reasonable, like contacting the parents of a student who has been interviewed to ensure everyone is OK with the story.
Other times, Wooldridge will tell the students that the story will not be allowed, Palmer said.
This spring, Schaver and Haertel wanted to do a yearbook spread on transgender students, Palmer said. When she mentioned the spread to Wooldridge, he told her, “That’s just never gonna get published.”
Palmer said she always tells her students to approach Wooldridge about topics regardless of if the students believe he will approve of the topic. But in this instance Schaver and Haertel decided not to go that route.
“That’s where The Red Pen got started,” Palmer said. “They decided not to go through that process with him.”
But before the first issue of The Red Pen was distributed, Schaver still took a one-page infographic of the “history of censorship at Manual” to Wooldridge so he could see what the students planned on running.
She said she never heard anything back from him.
The Red Pen staff handed out its first issue a few days before school let out for the summer at the end of May.
Schaver designed the publication at home using Microsoft Publisher and her parents covered the $400 to print the 500 copies of The Red Pen, she said, with the idea that she will pay them back.
McConville said the support of Schaver’s parents helped the staff create The Red Pen. Schaver’s father is an assistant metro editor at The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, and her mother is a former reporter.
The staff of The Red Pen said its publication was well received.
“The student body absolutely loved our publication,” McConville said in an email.
“I got people I hadn’t talked to in months coming up to me and complimenting me. It turned out to be something the school definitely needed.”
The distribution was slow at first, Schaver said, but later it seemed that everyone was holding an issue. She said many students asked her if the staff needed help for next year.
The first issue of The Red Pen explored student censorship and gay rights issues. Schaver said one common constructive criticism was that the publication needed more variety, which she hopes will be included in future issues of the paper.
Wooldridge, Manual’s principal, said in an email that he had heard about The Red Pen, but he has not read it. He said he tries to be as supportive as possible of student media while keeping student safety and confidentiality in mind.
“As the principal, and therefore editor in chief of all publications that come from our school, I do review the yearbook and other publications to ensure that these two issues are not in jeopardy,” Wooldridge said.
Palmer said other teachers came up to her and complimented The Red Pen before she even had a chance to read it. She said The Red Pen is “definitely an opinion-based publication,” compared to Manual’s publications, which have more articles that are neutral. But she said the staff of The Red Pen appeared to have thought through the issues and that they had a “great voice.”
She said she liked seeing the students use the skills they had learned in the journalism magnet program at Manual and it was evident the school succeeded in preparing them for independent work.
“With The Red Pen, it shows ultimately that we don’t have control over the students and their voice,” Palmer said.
What students should know
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said students who want to create their own publication should review their school’s policies before bringing a publication onto school grounds.
For instance, many schools have restrictions on how and when students can distribute their publication. Some schools even have prior review on outside material to make sure it is not unlawful or disruptive, LoMonte said, which is probably constitutional.
However, schools can’t control distribution off of school grounds or after school hours, LoMonte said. But with the rise of social media, schools have tried to regulate off-campus speech if it has the potential to cause harm or disruption at school.
He said students could give a courtesy heads up to the administration that they plan to distribute their own publication. But he advised against having more than a conversation to let administrators know what they plan on doing, because any more than that could make the students appear to be asking for permission.
“As a general matter, I wouldn’t invite the principal in the door,” he said.
Students should also avoid using school computers or working on their alternative publications during school hours, LoMonte said.
“Maintain integrity of separation so you can accurately claim to be independent,” he said.
Underground newspapers were popular in the 1970s, shortly after the Supreme Court ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines Ind. Comm. School District that students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate, LoMonte said.
In recent years, though, students have been more likely to express themselves online through Facebook groups or blog posts instead of a physical publication, LoMonte said.
He said it’s rare today to see students put in so much time to create an alternative publication, which makes The Red Pen particularly noteworthy.
“They really harnessed all of their journalism skills and talents to create a site that works as a bona fide journalism publication,” LoMonte said,
Schaver said while she wants to publish The Red Pen in the future, ideally, the staff would rather publish its stories in the scholastic press.
“The Red Pen is there to be an outlet if we lose that battle,” she said.
By Taylor Moak, SPLC staff writer.
duPont Manual High School, Fall 2012, Kentucky, reports, The Red Pen