Even though a fight against censorship is rooted in emotion, that emotion cannot direct the fight, 2009 JEA High School Journalist of the Year Henry Rome said.
Neither should the adviser.
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said the adviser’s role is to prepare students ahead of time why press freedoms are important and reinforce it at every opportunity.
“The adviser can’t be the public face of a censorship case,” he said, “because at the end of the day, she must maintain her loyalty to the school.”
Behind the scenes, though, the adviser can – and should – educate administrators about why censorship is a bad strategy as practical management.
“It breeds greater disrespect for authority,” LoMonte said. “It tarnishes the image of the school much more than letting a negative story run uncensored. The adviser can, and should, find ways to call the principal’s and community’s attention to the positive things journalism does.”
But waging the fight is a student responsibility, LoMonte said and the student editors here did everything right.
“First and foremost,” he said, “their journalism was unassailable. Unfortunately, students are held to standards that often are higher than those of the top professional media entities, so that a misspelled word or a correction is enough for a school to pretextually censor their work. This work was bulletproof.”
Second, he said, students cannot, although it is an emotional fight students should not run around shouting “First Amendment.”
“That argument carries no weight with schools and very little weight with the public at large,” LoMonte said. “You must make the argument about the practical effects of attempting to censor student journalism. Seth and Henry convincingly made the case that, if the proposed prior-review policies were enacted, they would have felt fearful of pursuing the award-winning stories that had brought so much credit to the district.”
LoMonte said the number one recommendation to students is to build alliances before they are needed. Those alliances could include a media alumni association, a parent booster club, contacts with the local media. He also said join scholastic media organizations and enter as many competitions as possible. Send all contacts copies of student media.
“You need to anticipate the people arguing in favor of censorship,” LoMonte said, “will argue myths and misperceptions, not facts.”
How to counter that:
• Go into conversations asking questions with making arguments.”For instance,” LoMonte said, “when you get the argument prior review is necessary to avid the school being sued for libel, you could argue back. But it might be more effective to ask questions.”
• Talk about the strengths of the journalism program and how students have learned, and how others recognize this learning through awards and accolades.
• Bring the censorship into the public arena
Spoke students did all those things.
“They used the political process expertly by drawing on alliances with the professional media, parents, and the alumni community, to the point that they managed to put censorship of The Spoke on the radar as a contested school board campaign issue,” LoMonte said. “Just as importantly, they stayed on top of every move their school board made. Too often, harshly punitive policies are sneaked past the students and then are nearly impossible to reverse. These students vigilantly read every draft and attended every committee meeting, developing credibility that allowed them to speak to the school board with authority.”
In short, Rome said, Spoke students worked on a three-prong approach: engaging the district in conversations, reaching out to the community and working with local and national media to explain their story.
Next: Starting the new year off right