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Journalists shouldn’t be ‘pawn in game of life’

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by Stan Zoller, MJE
A classic scene from Mel Brooks’ classic, “Blazing Saddles,” is when the ox-riding Neanderthal, Mongo, played by the late Alex Karras, professes to Bart the Sheriff, played by the late Cleavon Little, that “Mongo only pawn in game of life.”

It’s a funny scene, but when you apply the “pawn in the game of life” scenario to scholastic journalism, it loses its humor.

This appears to be the case with the student journalists on the staff of the Evasntonian, the student newspaper at Evanston (Illinois) Township High School.

After the Sept. 22 paper was confiscated by the English Department chairman, reportedly because of a spread students did on student-use of marijuana, questions began to emerge as to why the department chair took the action even though Principal Marcus Campbell knew of the spread. In emails obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, Campbell told some colleagues that “you may get questions, but state law prohibits school administrators from censuring student publications” (sic).

At face value there is reason to be optimistic, albeit a little, on two fronts. The first is that an administrator knows about Illinois’ recently enacted New Voices law, and secondly, he has indicated he’s not going to challenge it.

So why would a subordinate, in this case the English Department chair, over rule him? Good question.

Several sources have told me there are long-standing differences of opinion between the department chair and the adviser and, so it seems she wanted the last word, even it meant usurping the authority of principal.

The perceived personality issue spilled over to the Board of Education, which on Oct. 9 heard from student journalists and representatives of various community organizations. As previously reported on this site, one school board member called for a discussion during open session at the next school board meeting, Nov. 13.

No big deal. However, following a FOI request requesting emails about the Evanstonian situation, the Nov. 13 School Board meeting was highlighted by a 45-minute ripping of the Board member for emailing student journalists and the adviser.

While the terse and unprecedented exchange was the focus of the meeting, what was lost was the resolution of the Evanstonian situation.

According to one of the paper’s student editors, after a meeting with the superintendent, principal and department chair, it was determined that questions relating to the publication would be handled by the principal. According to one student editor, he does not plan to regulate or manipulate the publication’s content. Hopefully he’ll be more proactive.

So, what lies ahead? A lot of monitoring. With the adviser retiring this year, the door is, unfortunately, wide open for the administration to morph the program into its own image by setting strict guidelines for the new adviser.

It will be imperative, albeit a challenge, for journalism educators in the Chicago area to work with the new adviser, perhaps as a JEA mentor, or perhaps through membership in the Illinois Journalism Education Association (IJEA).

No matter what level of experience the new adviser will have, she will need to be well versed on Illinois Public Act 99-0678, the Speech Rights of Scholastic Journalists Act.

The need is simple – to ensure a free and responsible student media at the school – and to keep the student journalists from once again being pawns.

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