Should Schools Be Allowed to Censor Student Newspapers?

Should Schools Be Allowed to Censor Student Newspapers?

Does your school have a student newspaper? If so, do you read it or write for it? What purpose do you think it serves in your school? If not, do you wish your school had one? Why or why not?

Do students have free rein to write what they want in your school newspaper? Should they?

Recently, student journalists found themselves at odds with their school district after writing an article about an 18-year-old student who makes her own pornographic videos. The Times reports:

The Bear Creek High School newspaper has profiled notable students — athletes, budding entrepreneurs, academic whizzes — without incident for decades.

But an article that appeared Friday in The Bruin Voice caused an uproar over free speech, feminism and student journalism, all before it was even published.

The 18-year-old subject is a senior at the school in Stockton, Calif., one of more than 2,100 students.

She also makes her own pornographic videos.

The story about the story follows a pattern similar to other clashes between student journalists and school boards. The Lodi Unified School District, after learning about the planned profile, demanded last month that it be turned over for review before appearing online and in print. The attempted oversight drew far more attention than the article probably would have.

The district said the piece might violate a state rule that it said prevented publications at public schools from featuring “obscenity, defamation and incitement,” and it threatened to fire Katherine Duffel, the paper’s longtime faculty adviser.

In articles, columns, television programs and social media posts, the standoff over an unpublished story became either a symbol of censorship and women’s rights, or the loss of traditional values and a school district’s responsibility to protect young students from harmful content.

In a July 1, 2018 article “Hard News. Angry Administration. Teenage Journalists Know What It’s Like,” Jaclyn Peiser writes about more conflicts like the one at Bear Creek High School:

High schools across the country have pushed back this year against student journalists who have reported on sensitive subjects, like the reaction to school shootings and adolescent sexuality.

In Orange County, Calif., a principal condemned a school publication for a special issue that focused on teenage relationships, calling it “disrespectful and sensationalistic.”

In a town roughly 20 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, the administration deactivated a school’s news website after student journalists posted an investigative article examining the mysterious dismissal of a history teacher.

And in a suburb of Dallas, a principal forbade the publication of an opinion piece critical of the administration for scheduling events during the National School Walkout protest.

Since 1988, when the Supreme Court ruled that a Missouri school district had acted lawfully in removing a two-page spread on divorce and teenage pregnancy from a student newspaper, administrators have been able to censor work in school publications that they consider poorly written or “inconsistent with the shared values of a civilized social order.” Fourteen states have laws in place meant to safeguard school publications from interference.

The killing of the opinion piece on the National School Walkout protest was the third instance of conflict between John Burdett, the principal of Prosper High School in Prosper, Tex., and the school’s news publication, Eagle Nation Online. The first skirmish concerned an article about the cancellation of “movie day,” a school tradition allowing the class that had raised the most money for a cancer charity to see a movie during school hours. Mr. Burdett disputed the article’s take on the cancellation and ordered the faculty adviser, Lori Oglesbee-Petter, to scrub it from the site.

The article goes on to detail several more incidents:

In Herriman, Utah, an enterprising school publication ran into trouble after digging into a subject that administrators at Herriman High School had tried to keep secret: the reason for the dismissal of a popular history teacher.

Conor Spahr, 18, spent more than a month looking into why the teacher had stopped showing up for his classes last fall. After reviewing public records and interviewing students and teachers, Mr. Spahr reported in The Herriman Telegraph that the teacher “was sending highly inappropriate messages to a female student,” according to an unnamed person described in the article as a “source.” The morning after the article went live, it was gone.

“At first I thought it was a glitch or something,” Mr. Spahr said. “But once we saw the entire website was down, we knew something was happening.”

Mr. Spahr and Max Gordon, The Telegraph’s 18-year-old former editor in chief, created a new website — The Herriman Telegram — and republished the article. In January, news outlets in Utah reported that the teacher was under police investigation on allegations that he had sent inappropriate text messages to a minor.

In a statement, the Jordan School District, which includes Herriman High School, said it “encourages thought-provoking, informative and accurate reporting of all stories in our school newspapers.”

It isn’t only investigative reporting or stories on protests that have pitted student journalists against educators in recent months. Editors and reporters at San Juan Hills High School in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., caused a furor in March with a special issue of The Express called “Relationships & Sex.”

“We had five anonymous stories featuring personal experiences of students from diverse backgrounds and diverse relationships and sexual experiences,” said Olivia Fu, 18, formerly a co-editor in chief of The Express. “They opened up about what it was like for them in relationships in high school.”

In “Long-Term,” a girl describes ending up in an “emotionally abusive” relationship with a boy. In “Waiting Until Marriage,” a heterosexual couple explains why they have decided to abstain from sex. In “Gay,” a male student tells of ending up at a motel room for a sexual encounter with two partners. “Pregnancy Scare” goes into the fears of a sexually active female student, and “Bisexual” presents a male student who says, “I used to hate myself for my sexuality.” The stories were written by Express staff members, who gave aliases to the students they interviewed.

In an email to parents, the school’s principal, Jennifer Smalley, apologized for the “shock and dismay you felt when you opened up the paper.” The publication’s faculty adviser, Bill Kaiser, was put on paid leave. Out of concern for him, the students briefly took down the articles.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

— What is your reaction to the conflicts between student journalists and school administrators that you read about? Which of these instances of censorship, if any, were justified and why?

— Since the 1988 Hazelwood Sch. Dist. v. Kuhlmeier decision, administrators have been able to censor work in school publications that they consider poorly written or “inconsistent with the shared values of a civilized social order.” Do you think this ruling is fair? Should schools be allowed to censor student newspapers to protect students or the school’s reputation? Or should student journalists have free rein to write about whatever they want?

— In your opinion, are there any topics that should be off limits in school newspapers? If so, which ones and why? If not, why not? For example, should these publications be allowed to criticize the school administration, investigate teachers or write about sensitive subjects like teenage sexuality and school shootings? Why or why not?

— Has your school ever faced a similar crisis in which students were prevented by school administrators from saying or writing something? In your opinion, was this move necessary to protect students? Or did it cross the line into stifling free speech?

Britt Masback of Portland, Ore., one of the winners of our 2018 Summer Reading Contest, wrote about the July article:

Journalism is most effective when it informs and challenges its readers and expresses divergent opinions. I would argue that this is even more important among teens, who are in the throes of exploring issues and developing values. Today’s student newspapers offer a much-needed alternative to the adult-centric media, giving teens the opportunity to cover topics relevant to them. In 2018, no issue has provoked more youth expression (and youth activism) than the tragic shootings on school campuses. School papers have provided a needed outlet for the expression of student angst about shootings.

Do you agree that student newspapers “offer a much-needed alternative to the adult-centric media, giving teens the opportunity to cover topics relevant to them”? In your opinion, how important is it for teenagers to have a place to read and write about the issues that matter to them? Where do you go to express yourself or hear from people your age? How would you feel if you knew that space was controlled by adults?

Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.