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Some censorship makes ‘no cents’

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by Stan Zoller, MJE
During his first inaugural address, Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said that “the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.”

For media advisers, that fear is likely to be administrative censorship. Perhaps a bigger fear, however, is the threat of ‘economic censorship,’ where student media is threatened with a curtailment of elimination of funds based on content or performance.

It’s not a new tactic, but one that is grossly misrepresented. Threatening student media with fund reduction or elimination of funds is like over-zealous taxpayers threatening a public employee because someone “pays their salary.”  My favorite retort is to ask people who use that stunt if they get to drive a police car.  “Why, no” they’ll say, to which I reply, “but you pay their salary.”

I once had the dubious opportunity to engage in a similar argument with an attorney who told me school districts can censor school media because they provide the funds.

Wrong.

According to the SPLC’s Law of Student Media (third edition) in 1995, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Rosenberg v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, that “…neither school officials or those acting on their behalf can use their financial control over a student publication as a tool to dictate content or favor a particular viewpoint.”

Lower court cases have echoed the same sentiment.

What’s concerning, even a bit confusing, about attempts to control funding for student media is administrators generally seem to go after breaking news media, print newspapers and online editions of school media, as opposed to yearbooks. When it comes to funding for newspapers, it’s chump change compared to what schools may pay for yearbooks.

What’s concerning, even a bit confusing, about attempts to control funding for student media is administrators generally seem to go after breaking news media, print newspapers and online editions of school media, as opposed to yearbooks. When it comes to funding for newspapers, it’s chump change compared to what schools may pay for yearbooks.

Depending on the frequency of publications, breaking news media can cost around $10,000 to $15,000 for a school year while yearbook cost, depending on press run and size of the book, can hit six figures.

Information obtained by the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, revealed a wide disparity in what schools pay for printing of the yearbooks.  Granted, yearbooks generate some revenue, but odds are many schools subsidize production of yearbooks in some fashion.

One Chicago area school district, for example, spends $30,000 for what the district reported via the invoice as “cover applications and art” out of a reported total cost for the book of $107,580.  Another school documented yearbook expenses of $93,281 in an invoice that was not itemized.

The issue?  One of transparency.  Imagine, if you will, if the school newspaper or student media website ran a story about district finances with reporting gaps.  It is probable that administrators watch student breaking news media because of the timeliness of the reporting.  Yearbooks, which archive the year, may have the advantage of avoiding the hot issue at the hot time.

The nature of the media, however, should not spur administrative threats or action. Censorship, especially economic censorship, does little more than demoralize student journalists.  That’s not breaking news.

With administrators watching budgets, curtailing funding for student media is little more than a way to buy out student journalists’ First Amendment rights.

All student media should be supported in a similar manner.  Using purse strings as a threat is extortion.

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