Censorship stories: Student newspaper-administrator quarrels ultimately end in student resignation

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By Jimmy Hibsch, Rolling Meadows High School

For the past year the Stevenson High School Statesman staff has not only been reporting the news, but it has also been making it.

Last January, when former Features Editor Eunice Ro published an article about “hooking up,” administrators responded with harsh criticism. The article discussed the demise of the teenage ‘cookie-cutter’ relationships into casual, and often drunken, affairs. Disregarding an expose about the same topic in the New York Times that deemed hooking up a trend, district administrators claimed the issue was of “no news value” and insisted the missing 3,400 issues that included the article disappeared.

Over the next 11 months, the Stateman’s award-winning and nationally-known adviser Barbara Thill resigned and administration-student relationships withered.

“The administration was offered a chance to look over the package and while one of them did and said it looked good, the other one declined, wanting to wait to see it when the rest of the school did. They told us they trusted us,” former Editor-in-Chief Pam Selman said. “However, when the community had a strong response – both negative and positive – to the package, the administration decided to implement prior review of The Statesman and we have been under prior review since then.”

While District 125 Board of Education President Bruce Lubin said the school “has had an informal practice of pre-publication prior review for the Statesman for years” in his Dec. 19 statement, he also stressed the school was allowed to “impose restrictions” under the Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier decision.

Since the Statesman is not a public forum, the school claims it is an “educational and curriculum endeavor.” However, student journalists such as Selman say limiting the Statesman’s content does just the opposite.

“The practice of prior review does nothing but hinder education and make students feel as if they are incapable of making their own decisions,” Selman said. “It results in a weaker publication and a long list of impacts on education.”

This November, the dispute was furthered when administration censored the Statesman’s Nov. 20 issue, objecting to stories about Code of Conduct breaches by honors students, teenage pregnancies and the rise of shoplifting. Selman said when her staff decided to leave the front page blank in protest, administrators instead forced them to feature alternate stories they had approved.

Had students not consented, they would have failed their journalism class.

“They censored the entire issue, but then turned around the next day and told us we had an hour to put together a paper in the way they wanted us to. We received a packet delineating the exact format of the paper as requested by the administration,” Selman said. “They forced us to put a features story on the front page, and the pregnancy and honors student story were not printed.”

Essentially, the students felt the issue did not reflect their work in the least.

“We asked that an editors’ note be published explaining why the paper was not up to our standards, which was turned down. We also requested that our bylines be removed from the paper, not wanting our names attached to something we felt was not ours,” Selman said. “Again, they refused.”

A school spokesperson said the honors student story was ruled as unprintable because it included anonymous sources who admitted to illegal activity. However, that was not the case the following month when the staff attempted to publish an article about birth control. This time, administrators said that the article revealed personal medical information about a student.

“The school did not want to put medical information about a student into the public. They would not allow us to make her anonymous, so we ended up running a blank page,” Selman said. “When the administration censored the December issue, it was clear that they intended to continue censoring without reason.”

This year (2009-10), the school divided the Statesman production class into two separate sections, despite students pleas the change would drastically impact their production. With the end of the first semester, however, the school had moved the students’ schedules around again to allow for only one class – again forcing the staff to readjust. Seeing these and the school’s prior actions equal to forcing her to practice bad journalism, Selman and several other Statesman staff members quit the newspaper by withdrawing from the class associated with its production.

“Mainly, we refuse to compromise our ethics and standards that we hold so closely,” Selman said. “It is unfair of a school, or anyone for that matter, to ask a student or person to give up what they believe in.”

Currently, only four students remain in the class. The small staff originally intended to publish their Jan. 28 issue on schedule, however, it has been delayed as a result of their lack of numbers. The first issue published Feb. 12.

As for the remainder of the Statesman’s former staff, Selman said the future is uncertain.

“We are currently considering all of our options, but we have gotten a number of offers from companies willing to sponsor Web sites and publications for us completely independent of the school. We will be pursuing one of those options,” Selman said.

Jimmy Hibsch is the Editor-in-Chief of The Pacer at Rolling Meadows High School (IL)

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