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Fighting the chilling effects of censorship leads to students funding own outside school paper

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by Liz Palmer
Hazelwood stories: Six years ago we began teaching journalism as a husband-wife team at duPont Manual High School’s communications magnet program in Louisville, Kentucky.25 years of Hazelwood art

Around the same time, one of the assistant principals became principal. Manual is the city’s highest profile and most competitive magnet school, and it puts the principal under considerable public pressure.

The yearbook the students produced during our principal’s first year ran a spread about Manual’s changing attitudes toward LGBT students. Quoted in the article were students who self-identified as LGBT and long-time teachers who had witnessed the mood shift.

Kentucky isn’t known as a progressive state, but our school and its culture is a well-known exception to the rule. The students quoted were out to their friends, acquaintances, classmates, and families … and after the yearbook was published, the principal, who had received an advance copy, did not want the spread in the yearbook at all, even if the students were anonymous. Liz, as the adviser, and Jamie, as the department chair, had reviewed the spread prior to publication and thought it was appropriate.

The principal ordered us to tell the students to remove the spread or cut it out ourselves. It was clear our jobs were on the line, but we did not feel we could ask the students to cut out the spread. Regardless, the editors sliced 1200 spreads out of the yearbook with Xacto knives out of concern we would be fired.

Since then, the principal has practiced prior review in all of our school’s publications. He cites the Hazelwood decision when he believes content will be “disruptive.”

The practice frequently has a chilling effect on the students’ editorial decisions, as they don’t want to put time into a story only to have the principal censor it, and rarely do students (and parents) embrace the idea of a battle with the administration.

In particular, they know the administration wants them to avoid LGBT issues and stories that would supposedly compromise the positive image of the school. We see few stories proposed with this sort of content.

A few students and their families did decide to make public their objections to the school’s censorship. Manual made international headlines when a teacher had an affair with a student, but when a student reporter asked the principal for an interview, the principal told him he could not publish anything but a brief, principal-authored statement that she “resigned” on the student-run news website.

The local media caught wind of the story’s censorship, and one of the student reporters agreed to be interviewed on camera at his home.

On another occasion, student reporters planned another yearbook story about the issue of transgendered students in the school. The principal exercised prior restraint, and the students responded by making their own publication without school funds or an adviser’s input.

Their publication, the Red Pen, was a hot item in the school and resulted in the students winning the Courage in Student Journalism Award from the Student Press Law Center.

Earlier, in 2012, issue two came out and we’ve heard the administration confiscated copies from students distributing them before school.

Hazelwood is a constant source of confusion for students and administrators about where their rights begin and end, about who should be accountable, and about the correct role for teachers, students and administrators in the student press.

Liz Palmer is is Magnet Coordinator for Journalism and Communication and director of Young Writers Workshop at duPont Manual High School, Louisville, Kentucky. 

 

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