Over the years, school newspapers have played a critical role in raising issues relevant to schools and their students. Since they are generally under the thumb of the school administration, this can sometimes become a little bit dicey.
When I was a student newspaper writer and editor, the newspaper was part of our extra-curricular choices. Now, most high school newspapers are published as part of a class. As these programs move into the classroom, they come even more under the control of school administration.
In this article, I explore the complex issue of censorship, including local examples of school news controversies, past and present. I highlight some student work that has been published – topics that are important to students, even if they might make adults uncomfortable.
I started writing this column in mid-May, impressed by the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association (MIPA) awards won in April by Community High School and Dexter High School – and to a lesser extent, Pioneer High School and Saline High School. I was interested in the struggles that high school newspapers have to create a (somewhat) free press.
More recently, two local students – Madeline Halpert and Eva Rosenfeld – wrote a column published by the New York Times on May 21. Titled “Depressed but Not Ashamed,” the column explains how Halpert and Rosenfeld discovered at a journalism conference that they were both taking medication for depression. They then decided to interview other students with depression for their school newspaper. In the column, they describe how, ultimately, they were not allowed by the school administration to publish an edition focused on students with depression.
Even though I’d been working on an article about the student press, I hadn’t heard about their situation. That fact highlights two truths about the student press – and the media in general. First, we generally know only about the controversies that are ignited when something is reported on – and not when it is suppressed. That may, in fact, be the best argument for a free press.
Second, the areas of most concern to students are also the areas most likely to be censored by administrators. I think they fall into two general categories: school politics and environment, or the body politic; and issues that are more personal to students – the body politic.
My Own School Newspaper
To give you some context about my own experience, I worked on my high school newspaper – the Garnet & Black. And as a side note, I attended high school with Adam Silver, the new National Basketball Association commissioner who recently banned Donald Sterling from the NBA. At one point, I was the girls’ sports editor and Adam was the boys’ sports editor.
Last fall, when I was home, my father had dug up yet another old box of my memorabilia, and in there were some copies of the high school newspaper. Back then, the newspaper was an after-school club, and the newspaper came out monthly during the school year.
Although I was surprised to see a short notice in one of the issues about Planned Parenthood’s services (including the words “birth control”), in general we felt we were fairly limited as to what we could write. All ideas and copy had to be approved by the school principal as well as our newspaper’s adviser, and the principal was perceived as a fairly heavy-handed censor.
That’s not unusual. Because student newspapers are produced in the context of school, they operate under the rules set by the faculty and administration.
The Washtenaw Voice
Yet within those constraints, student newspapers can – and do – break news and shine a light on problems. Sometimes, though, the consequences of doing that can be severe.
Over the past few months, the Washtenaw Voice, the student newspaper for Washtenaw Community College, has highlighted faculty dissatisfaction with the current WCC president, Rose Bellanca. On May 5, 2014, Voice editors felt compelled to post an editorial, “The Voice Will Not Be Silenced.” In part, they write:
We don’t usually print rumors, but a recent widespread rumor hits so close to home that we can’t help but address it: Someone at Washtenaw Community College is intent on shutting down The Voice. Several concerned sources came to us with this information last week. We asked administrators up our chain of command – Vice President of Student and Academic Services Linda Blakey and Director of Student Activities Pete Leshkevich. Both told us that they’ve heard nothing of the sort.
But if this rumor were true it would be done by simply putting a red line through our budget, and we wouldn’t know it had been done until after the trustees approve the budget. So, we would never have a chance to defend ourselves.
By highlighting this rumor, the students were trying to forestall action that the administration might be tempted to take.
School Newspapers and Freedom of the Press
Eliminating the budget for a student publication would be an extreme measure, but school administrators can exercise control in other ways.
According to a survey taken at a recent national high school journalism convention, one-third of respondents reported that they’d had articles censored by administrators. One-third also said they had self-censored because they thought administrators would censor them. This is complicated even more by the fact that often, the means of production – money, classroom space, computers – are controlled by the administration.
So what rights do school newspapers have? The Student Press Law Center provides a clear explanation:
Q: Do high school students have First Amendment rights?
A: Yes. As the United States Supreme Court said in 1969, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional right to freedom of speech at the schoolhouse gate.” But the First Amendment prohibits only government officials from suppressing speech; it does not prevent school censorship at private schools. A state constitution, statute or school policy could provide private school students with free speech protections.
Q: What about the Hazelwood decision?
A: Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision, gave public high school officials greater authority to censor some school-sponsored student publications if they choose to do so. But the ruling doesn’t apply to publications that have been opened as “public forums for student expression.” It also requires school officials to demonstrate some reasonable educational justification before they can censor anything.
A student publication is a public forum for student expression when school officials have given student editors the authority to make their own content decisions.
Local High School Publications: Our Bodies, Ourselves
Issues of censorship often arise when students attempt to cover topics that administrators deem inappropriate or controversial. But those are exactly the subjects that are of intense interest to the students – whether they’re working on a publication, or reading it.
It’s worth looking at how this plays out locally. In a brief survey of six local high schools, I found publications at two high schools – Saline and Huron – that appear to be defunct. The Saline High School lost its school newspaper, the Golden Sting, due to a combination of budget cuts and a lack of interest in the class a few years ago – it needed 25 students to run, and only 21 students enrolled. Before it was cut, it had won a Michigan Interscholastic Press Association Spartan Award for seven years in a row.
The Skyline newspaper – The Skybox – looks like it’s just getting off the ground. But three high schools have active, well-established student publications: The Pioneer Optimist, Dexter Squall, and Community High’s Communicator.
The Squall and Communicator appear to be the most robust student publications locally, with print and online editions. The newspapers solicit advertising and sell subscriptions. The Communicator is also running an indiegogo campaign to raise funds.
These publications are fertile soil for future journalists. Along the way, students learn writing, photography, and web design.
At Community High School, the current print edition looks and feels more like a magazine, and the web publication is meant more for breaking news. At Dexter High School, the print edition is a 16-page, color publication with a print run of 1,700. Old issues are available online.
Both papers cover a wide range of topics, including school policies, theater and sports, local news. For instance, the Communicator recently covered the same-sex marriage court decision, including interviewing a CHS student. The Squall covered the Dexter district’s decision to combine the Advanced Placement English and the International Baccalaureate English classes. Dexter students reported on a bill in the Michigan House of Representatives to revise the way teachers are evaluated, while CHS students wrote about the year-end CHS jazz concert.
Students also report on issues of a more personal nature. In February, Lauren Kimmel of the Dexter Squall used humor to tackle a serious topic in her column “Boys, Take the Hint: Relationships Aren’t Like Movies, You Know.” In it, she compares the real world to scenes from romantic movies – and concludes with an anti-stalking message:
Before you even consider scouring the entire kingdom for her,
take the hint.
If you had to scale a Ferris wheel to convince her to go out with you in the first place. If she and her family moved away 364 days ago. If you’ve been writing her a letter a day ever since without so much as a “k” or “:)” response,
take the hint.
Boys, no means no. Girls, you’re welcome. Now hopefully you won’t have 10 unread messages and 16 pending Snapchats when you check your phone. Hopefully you will be able to walk down the street without constantly checking over your shoulder and hopefully there will be no more pebbles hitting your window in the dead of night.
Over at the Communicator, Hannah Hesseltine recently penned “Skintight Sexism,” about the Ann Arbor Public Schools’ dress code policy.
Community High School student Ada Banks and Pioneer High School student Julia Hale devised a petition on May 8 to the Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS), demanding that they review their longstanding, district-wide dress code policy. Banks petition addresses the public shaming AAPS has instated into their protocol; girls at Slauson Middle School are required to wear “ugly t-shirts” when their dress is deemed “inappropriate” by their teachers, a direct shaming tactic and a “blatant attempt at humiliating students for their dress”. While the conflict throughout AAPS is centralized around the length of a girls’ pair of shorts, the cut of her shirt, or the thickness of her tank tops’ straps, the central reasoning behind the dress code policy here and in Evanston remains the same: these garments are “too distracting to boys”.
It is this logic that has the potential to severely damage a girl’s self-image. While a need for appropriate attire in a school environment is understandable, blaming weakened male academic performance on women’s clothing choices—and their changing bodies—is not.
If you want to read the petition, and/or sign on, you can do that at the Change.org website.
Administrators: To Censor, or Not to Censor?
Obviously, these are articles and columns that the administration allowed to be published. In fact, the Dexter Squall has a history of taking on controversial issues, like dance clubs where students “grind,” and teen pregnancy. In 2010, a group of parents did not like what they saw, and created an anonymous blog to try to stop students from focusing on some of these issues. The Dexter High School principal, William “Kit” Moran, stood with the students, and for that he won the MIPA Administrator of the Year award, as well as the Courage In Student Journalism Award from the Student Press Law Center.
Here’s an excerpt from the SPLC press release (emphasis added):
Principal Moran received the administrator award for refusing to censor The Squall despite fierce attacks from community members who claimed the paper was printing content inappropriate for its school-age audience. Unrest over the content resulted in the creation of anonymous blog distorting the content of The Squall as “tabloid journalism,” and calls for the school district to strip the students of autonomy over editorial judgments.
The controversy prompted the Dexter school board to review the publication policies for The Squall, which limit the school’s authority to censor student speech. The board declined to remove the “public forum” designation protecting student publications, a balanced approach that allows students to make editorial content decisions as long as what they publish is not unlawful or substantially disruptive of school.
“I believe that journalism in America is crucial to our democracy,” said Moran, a longtime English teacher and coach who has been principal at Dexter since 2006. “A free society needs a free press. This isn’t new, but allowing this concept to be played out in high school may seem a bit radical. However, if we teach our students sound journalistic methods and ethics and allow them to act as journalists, we provide a rich and robust environment for their education.”
However, there’s a recent example that shows the opposite approach.
Last year, Madeline Halpert and Eva Rosenfeld were interested in highlighting the struggles that students have with depression. As they write in their New York Times column – “Depressed but Not Ashamed” – untreated depression is a major contributor to suicide. Here’s an excerpt (emphasis added):
As editors at our high school newspaper, we decided to fight against the stigma and proposed devoting a whole edition to personal stories from our peers who were suffering from mental illness. We wanted honesty with no anonymity.
We knew that discussing mental health in this way would be edgy, even for our progressive community in Michigan. But we were shocked when the school administration would not allow us to publish the articles.
The students interviewed for this series had signed consent forms, as had their parents. Yet administration was concerned that the students – who would be fully named in the article – would be vulnerable to bullying, or to re-traumatization from reading the articles.
The editors did not want to use pseudonyms, because part of the focus was on de-stigmatizing depression. By saying that this topic needs pseudonyms, they’d be reinforcing the very thing they hoped to dispel – that depression causes so much stigma that one must hide behind a fake name.
The AAPS administration supported the CHS dean’s decision.
One thing that jumps out at me was the idea that a whole edition would be devoted to this topic. Halpert and Rosenfeld write, “By interviewing these teenagers for our newspaper, we tried – and failed – to start small in the fight against stigma.” But I think that assessment is too modest. Devoting a whole edition to a topic is not starting small. Interviewing lots of students is not starting small.
What’s more, the reaction of Halpert and Rosenfeld to the censorship – writing an op-ed piece for the New York Times – is also not starting small. [Note, though, that neither the town nor the high school is mentioned by name in the column.] Further, getting as far as they got – interviewing students, getting consent from parents regarding publication students’ names, utilizing the advice of the Student Press Law Center – could not have happened without the support of their teacher advisor.
What gets published, gets noticed. If the New York Times column had not been published, most people would never have known about this controversy. This isn’t limited to the classroom, either. In suppressing writing – an act that happens every day in newsrooms across the country – we suppress information. Changes in the news industry have the capacity to suppress many, many topics.
On the other hand, the opportunity to publish in other venues – to self-publish on blogs, Twitter or other online publications – means that the ability to censor students has changed.
Back in February of 2008, Jeff Piku – Dexter Squall’s image editor – vented in an editorial:
Apparently this paper has become somewhat controversial.
It seems like every time we come out with a new issue, there is someone waiting to knock us and “constructively criticize” us.
Well, frankly, I’m getting fed up with this.
The world isn’t perfect. There are such things as drugs, alcohol, sex and strippers that exist out there.
The fact is, most teenagers have had at least minor experiences with these topics and want to read about them. And, given that the Squall’s primary audience is teenagers, we’re going to continue to write about things that might be viewed by parents as controversial.
Students desire to construct meaning through their student newspapers. To me, it’s important to let them.
Ruth Kraut is an Ann Arbor resident and parent of three children who have all attended the Ann Arbor Public Schools. She writes at Ann Arbor Schools Musings (a2schoolsmuse.blogspot.com) about education issues in Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, and Michigan.
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