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History should not repeat itself

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by Stan Zoller

On Nov. 9, as is the case every year, there will be an observance of Kristallnacht.

Historically, Kristallnacht, often referred to as the Night of Broken Glass, was a 24-hour period, from Nov. 9 to Nov. 10, 1938, when Adolph Hitler ordered troops to ransack the homes and businesses of Jews in Germany and Austria.

In addition to the destruction of homes and businesses, Nazi troops made a concentrated effort to destroy books and other printed materials to prevent not only religious observances, but also learning.

The move by any governing body to prohibit education by destroying, confiscating or preventing dissemination of information is reprehensible.

Especially for student journalists.

But, time and time again stories emerge about overzealous administrators who, for unknown reasons, prohibit distribution of student media.

The latest case is at Evanston (Illinois) Township High School where the Sept. 22 edition of the Evanstonian was confiscated and distribution prohibited.

But not, the paper’s editors told me, by the principal.

By the English Department chair. On a day, no less when the paper’s longtime adviser and journalism teacher, Rodney Lowe, was not at school.

Reasons, you ask?

Students say none were given. They speculate that the eye of her disdain was a two-page spread on student use of marijuana. While some tweaks may have been in order, there was nothing that would have invoked the ire of an administrator, unless he or she is compelled to invoke the late Alexander Haig’s mantra of “I am in charge now.”

But why the department chair and not the principal? That’s a good, no make that great, question because, the day before, the principal saw the paper and did not have a problem with the issue.

The act is clear, noting that:

“This Act does not authorize or protect expression by a student journalist that: (1) is libelous, slanderous, or obscene; (2) constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy; (3) violates federal or State law; or (4) incites students to commit an unlawful act, to violate policies of the school district, or to materially and substantially disrupt the orderly operation of the school.”  

What may be the most disturbing element of this situation is that officials at Evanston High School seem to have blatantly ignored Illinois law 99-0678, the Free Speech of Scholastic Journalists Act, signed into law in July 2016.

The act is clear, noting that:

“This Act does not authorize or protect expression by a student journalist that: (1) is libelous, slanderous, or obscene; (2) constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy; (3) violates federal or State law; or (4) incites students to commit an unlawful act, to violate policies of the school district, or to materially and substantially disrupt the orderly operation of the school.”

The work done by the Evanstonian staff does not infringe on any of these areas.

In addition to the confiscation and prohibition on distributing the print issues, the department chair demanded that “the article” be stricken from the paper’s website.

The Evanstonian has a long history of excellence.  “… I am distressed this kind of ignorance could possibly take place and at of all places Evanston High School, where one of the most important groundbreaking student newspapers of the past, the Evanstonian, thrived…” longtime adviser Wayne Brasler told me in an email exchange.

That level of excellence has continued as Evanston was the 2015 state champion in the Illinois High School Association’s state journalism tournament.

So, what lies ahead?  Friday, Oct. 13, student staff members of the Evanstonian are scheduled to meet with the superintendent, the principal the department chairman.

While it is nearly a month after the publication date, the meeting comes on the heels of Monday, Oct. 9’s school board meeting in which four student staff members gave eloquent and extremely well-prepared statements.

Also giving statements were myself and Maryam Judar, an attorney who heads the Citizen Advocacy Center, a Chicago area-based organization that monitors transparency by local governments, access to public records, and adherence to sunshine laws. In May the CAC sponsored a four-part series on the rights of high school students.  One session focused on scholastic press rights.

While the Board was mum following the statements, during the new business of the meeting, school board member Jonathan Baum called for the “Evanstonian situation” to be discussed during open session at the next School Board meeting.  After the meeting Baum said he may not be happy about student marijuana use, but he does believe in a free press.

The next school board meeting is scheduled for Oct. 23.

It will be interesting to see if a free press reigns, or if it will be a matter of academic Kristallnacht.

One Comment

  1. When my school district in St. Louis County, Missouri, decided during World War II to start a district-wide newspaper to be delivered to every home in our large, sprawling area, the design of that publication was based on Evanston Township HIgh’s Evanstonian. That is how far back
    excellence in journalism goes at the school. When I began advising a high school newspaper in 1964 I looked to he Evanstonian as a model of excellence, thoughtfulness and wisdom. As a young journalist, before I taught, I did a major feature on former Concentration Camp victims establishing new lives in the United States. They always told me that Americans need to always be on guard; that what happen before in Europe could happen again in the United SIates. I have never forgotten that warning.

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