Where has a generation of Hazelwood left us? With fearful students trained to censor themselves.



There's a small but powerful item on today's New York Times Learning blog that should bring a gasp from anyone who cares about building safe schools that encourage critical thinking. Here's how it starts:

As editor in chief of my school newspaper, I’ve repeatedly been faced with the decision of whether or not to publish articles that could potentially cause backlash from the school administration — exposés on homophobia in the school’s sports program, feuds between teachers and faculty members, and so on. Time and time again, my co-editors and I have chosen not to publish these articles. Our justification: too much risk, not enough reward.
"Sam" wrote to the Times to say how inspired he was by the example of two New York high school journalists who were arrested for their aggressive reporting tactics in trying to demonstrate how easily an intruder could penetrate porous school security. He contrasted their willingness to face consequences for challenging authority with his own school-reinforced timidity.

The fact that students know of significant problems plaguing their schools (Sam's example, homophobia in sports) and yet choose to stay silent for fear of retribution should sadden and alarm us all. No kid should go to school in fear that truthfully speaking out about matters of public concern will bring retaliation.

Thanks to 25 years under the Supreme Court's errant Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier standard, students have figured out that the legal system has abandoned them. Federal judges whose job is to enforce constitutional imperatives protecting the powerless have instead decided it is the judiciary's responsibility to protect the government against its most vulnerable citizens.

It shouldn't take bravery to express concern or dissatisfaction to a service provider (which is, after all, what schools are). Sam's message deserves attention from New York legislators -- who can and should add their bellwether state to the roster of those neutralizing the toxic educational effects of Hazelwood by statute -- and by reformers who increasingly are recognizing the essential role of a welcoming "school climate" in improving education.

Tagged: censorship, First Amendment, First Amendment, high school journalism, high school newspaper, self-censorship