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175 years later, still lessons to learn

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I love that my mom and dad still send me actual clippings from our local newspapers when they think something will appeal to me. I also love that Mom, at age 76,  has now made  the leap to digital media and sends me links as well. The link she sent me Thursday from The Columbia Daily Tribune, a piece by T.J. Greaney, sparked something inside of me and I feel compelled to pass it on.

http://www.columbiatribune.com/news/2010/feb/11/famed-editor-merits-stamp-of-approval/

It’s about a Missouri journalist, Elijah Lovejoy, who was killed in 1837 defending press freedoms and Mom thought my students “might be interested in knowing about the lengths he went to use his right to free speech.” It seems there is a group trying to get Lovejoy his own postage stamp in honor of the 175 anniversary of his death.

This article inspired me as an adviser who has survived censorship.

1. The importance of standing firm

Lovejoy stood firm in his convictions. He continued to voice his opinions against slavery, although they were unpopular. Unable to stop him with threats of violence, angry mobs tore his printing press apart and threw it into the river. Isn’t that what those in power do to our students when they censor? They think if they throw the press in the river, they can silence the voices. Today’s students are much too savvy for that. Online media makes it easier than ever for students to continue to publish, even if their official publication has been destroyed by censorship.

2. There’s no shame in moving on

Eventually Lovejoy moved his operations to a free state, Illinois. He had endured violence and retribution. When it got too dangerous and he feared for his wife’s well-being, he moved on. As advisers working under stressful conditions we often feel guilty about the decision to move on. We don’t want to give up. The fact remains, sometimes we can help negotiate a happy ending for our students freedoms, and sometimes the angry mob mentality cannot be subdued. There is no shame in moving on. My hope is that advisers who feel they must, can transfer into publication positions in other schools or other states. Even if they cannot, they should know that to resign for personal and familial health and well-being is justified. They should also know their contribution to teaching students about press freedom will not be forgotten.

3. Sometimes the bullies win

Even though he moved to another state, in Lovejoy’s case, the bullies eventually won – at least temporarily. They silenced his voice by force. Sometimes, students and advisers are just too beat up to continue. Sometimes the bullies win but,

4. Time heals and sometimes validates

Even though the angry mobs silenced Lovejoy’s voice with a gun, looking back I’m sure the people of Missouri and Illinois realize he was in the right. Sometimes those unpopular opinions voiced by students bring out true problems in a school. I remember an unpopular opinion my students wrote about race relations at our school when some students showed up at a Halloween dance in blackface. It was controversial. There was discussion about whether it should run or not. My students claimed there was a problem with racism in our school. It ran as both news and opinion with all sides represented. Two years later our school dealt with a media firestorm when racial slurs scribbled on the bathroom wall threatened students of color. Today, our district has a diversity committee which includes members of all schools, law enforcement and community members. I look back and shake my head. My students reported about it, gave and asked for solutions two years before.

The best validation came from a school board member on the fateful day the committee made the decision about our student forum status. “If you really want to know what students think and are concerned about, read their paper,” he said. We retained our student forum status with a unanimous vote.

Maybe it’s because my mother read me To Kill a Mockingbird before I could read it myself or maybe it’s because my father, like Atticus, always had a newspaper within his reach and part of our Sunday tradition was to read together. Maybe it’s because they still live in Missouri where, four years after my high school graduation, the Hazelwood decision slammed a sledgehammer into student press rights, or because I myself endured a censorship issue as an adviser of student media, but I have found myself inextricably tied to the issue of student free speech.

I can’t help thinking about the lesson Scout and Jem learned from their father.

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.  It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.  You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” ~Atticus Finch from Harper Lee’s, To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter 11

Today I thank Elijah Lovejoy for his courage and his contributions to the free press.

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