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Marshmallow fluff: What learning looks like in Hazelwood’s world

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by Candace Bowen

Hazelwood stories: Jan. 14, 1988. As I walked through the main office of St. Charles (Ill.) High School, my principal waved me into his office. “Did you hear that Supreme Court decision?” he said. I didn’t need to ask which one – the whole scholastic journalism community had been worried about Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, and though we hadn’t had time to sort out all it could mean, we knew if wasn’t good. But the best defense is a good offense, so my reply to him, “Sure, I heard, but there’s not enough room in the X-Ray office for your desk, too.”25 years of Hazelwood art

Our principal didn’t immediately start talking about prior review, but the chilling effect was there. When my staff worked on a spread about teen sexuality, they worried about the interview with a local teen mother. One editor was convinced the Supreme Court said no one could write stories on that topic. Another checked with every health teacher to be sure the “safe sex” advice – actually from Planned Parenthood – was something at least SOME of them had in their curriculum. The spread ran, and the principal wasn’t pleased, but he didn’t move his desk up to Room 217.

He wasn’t pleased about factual reporting about a possible teacher strike or criticism of the district for having far fewer guidance counselors than the American School Counselor Association recommended. But he didn’t demand to see the publication before it went to press.

Sadly, that open forum status did not continue after I left in 1994. With a new adviser, albeit one with a good background and understanding of press law, and then a succession of principals, administrators had a much heavier hand. As I moved to a new state a year later, I found out this was more common than I had feared. Principals in Ohio seemed more than willing to cut articles and predetermine taboo topics, all in the name of Hazelwood. Advisers were threatened for “not having enough control” of their student journalists, and experienced, trained advisers lost their publications to novices when the administration said they wanted to “take the program in a different direction.”

A telling example: When speaking at a nearby press day and drinking coffee with advisers who had just arrived, one asked what my presentation would be. “The educationally sound reason to not have prior review,” I answered. Several across the table said, “Oh, yes, we have that – thank goodness.” “Yes, me, too,” the other said, “and it takes so much pressure off me.” Yikes! Clearly my audience and I would not be on the same page. So…I quickly revamped the presentation and seated them all – about 12 or 15 – in a circle. I told each to tell her status as far as prior review and censorship went.  To a person, those whose students had free speech rights told about stories that made a difference, principals who were hesitant but then impressed, awards they won for great content. The others complained they had a hard time recruiting and their students said they “could only write about marshmallow fluff.” By the time they had told their stories, I didn’t need to say much more: The power of Hazelwood, often far beyond even what the Supreme Court said,  has taken its toll on student media.

Candace Bowen is a former president of the Journalism Education Association and current director of the Center for Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University.

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