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Stevenson censorship shows issues of empowering student expression

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By Randy Swikle
The censorship controversy at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., shows the challenges facing those who believe in cultivating free and responsible student news media in public schools.

That’s free as in student empowerment within the parameters set by the U.S. Supreme Court in Tinker v. Des Moines Board of Education.

That’s responsible as in commitment to journalism ethics and self-awareness that student journalists are custodians, not owners, of their news medium. They have an inherent obligation in decision-making to consider the values of the school community, the tenets of the school mission, the pedagogic concerns of school officials, and the best interests of readers/listeners/viewers.

The censorship of The Statesman, a national award-winning student newspaper, shows deficiencies that contribute to distrust, alienation, hostility and other attitudes that are counterproductive to a positive learning culture.

Among the deficiencies:

(1) Lack of understanding of scholastic press law. Stevenson administrators suggest that since the student newspaper is a curricular activity, school officials may arbitrarily regulate its content. In fact, because the paper functions as a public forum, officials are constrained to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Tinker parameters, which narrow reasons for justifiable administrator intervention. Administrators further justified censorship with the argument they were acting in loco parentis. In fact, in Morse v. Frederick, justices wrote, “When public school authorities regulate student speech, they act as agents of the State; they do not stand in the shoes of the students’ parents. It is dangerous fiction to pretend that parents simply delegate their authority—including their authority to determine what their children may say and hear—to public school authorities.” By forcing students to publish their “administratively revised” newspaper, by not allowing students to withhold their bylines and by refusing to allow a blank space or editorial protesting censorship, school authorities have put themselves in a precarious legal position.

(2) Determination to mandate rather than inspire ethics. Stevenson administrators censored a story containing admissions of two unnamed members of the National Honor Society who said they violated the Student Code of Conduct. The use of unnamed sources is an ethical decision that should be made by students, not forced upon them by administrators serving as government agents.

(3) Use of clout instead of collaboration. Censorship originating from a four-person, prior review panel, absent student input, is reactive rather than proactive oversight strategy that alienates learners and teaches obedience instead of responsibility.

(4) Slanted account of censorship issues. Official statements about the censorship controversy have been disseminated by the school’s public relations spokesperson and have been ambiguous, misleading, inaccurate and biased.

(5) Lack of accountability. By refusing to submit to questions in a public forum, school administrators and journalism advisers elude accountability for the censorship actions they have taken.

(6) More concern about “being right” than “doing right.” The professional news media, journalism educators, journalism organizations, parents and others have strongly protested the censorship by Stevenson administrators, yet there has been no evidence of conciliation on the part of administrators. The failure by administrators to effectively resolve the censorship controversy has put the student newspaper and journalism program in jeopardy, has compromised the welfare of learners and has raised serious questions about the culture of learning at Stevenson High School.

Finally, the way to cultivate a free and responsible student press is to engage in democratic education. To be authoritative but not authoritarian. To respect students as partners rather than mere subordinates. To achieve a PROPER BALANCE of structure and freedom.

Swikle is state director for the Journalism Education Association

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