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Hazelwood made some better teachers, journalists; others suffered from fear

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by Nancy Hastings

Hazelwood stories: It’s hard to believe that it’s been 25 years since the Hazelwood decision came in…. it seems like only last week when the phone calls poured in from local media and area high schools asking for my opinions on what this would mean and my help to defend student rights from administrators already trying to clamp the voice of criticism.25 years of Hazelwood art

I always thanked my lucky stars that I worked in a school district and community that supported our student media. While we didn’t always agree, the administration believed in us to act responsibly. In fact, my principal used to tell me that he’d rather answer questions from student journalists than the local media, because at least the students quoted him accurately.

I do think Hazelwood made us better journalists. We still tackled stories that mattered, but we became more conscious of the need to cover all sides of the story as accurately as possible. The students became better critical thinkers as they debated issues and backed up their beliefs.  The decision encouraged more open communication as editors scheduled regular meetings with administrators to discuss subjects that mattered to both sides. In fact, they often invited the principal to attend Editorial Board meetings when the staff had concerns they wanted to discuss.

I think Hazelwood in some ways made me a better teacher. I started teaching in the Tinker era when… “students nor teachers shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gates.” I could no longer take those rights for granted. I had to fully understand student press law and ethics, so that my students could decipher their rights and responsibilities.  These students in turn, used that knowledge to help educate each new young administrator who believed students had no rights to criticize any school decision or activity. As students became more proficient in understanding the pedagogical mission of schools, they became more confident as reporters and writers.

Unfortunately, not all student journalists have been so lucky. Area administrators have confiscated newspapers that criticized a coach, have shut down a publication that called for the school library to be open longer after hours to allow students to research, and set have set up prior review because student journalists criticized school policies.  New advisers with little journalism background have become controlled PR tools of their administrations, fearful of covering anything that matters. So many staffs self-censored themselves, knowing someone is watching over their shoulders.

I remember that cold January day as if it were last week. Many journalism programs have thrived on the strength of a responsible student voice. Unfortunately many more have suffered under the misconceptions of the Hazelwood decision.

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