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Censorship stories: Student newspaper-administrator quarrels ultimately end in student resignation

Posted by on Feb 14, 2010 in Blog, Law and Ethics, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments

By Jimmy Hibsch, Rolling Meadows High School

For the past year the Stevenson High School Statesman staff has not only been reporting the news, but it has also been making it.

Last January, when former Features Editor Eunice Ro published an article about “hooking up,” administrators responded with harsh criticism. The article discussed the demise of the teenage ‘cookie-cutter’ relationships into casual, and often drunken, affairs. Disregarding an expose about the same topic in the New York Times that deemed hooking up a trend, district administrators claimed the issue was of “no news value” and insisted the missing 3,400 issues that included the article disappeared.

Over the next 11 months, the Stateman’s award-winning and nationally-known adviser Barbara Thill resigned and administration-student relationships withered.

“The administration was offered a chance to look over the package and while one of them did and said it looked good, the other one declined, wanting to wait to see it when the rest of the school did. They told us they trusted us,” former Editor-in-Chief Pam Selman said. “However, when the community had a strong response – both negative and positive – to the package, the administration decided to implement prior review of The Statesman and we have been under prior review since then.”

While District 125 Board of Education President Bruce Lubin said the school “has had an informal practice of pre-publication prior review for the Statesman for years” in his Dec. 19 statement, he also stressed the school was allowed to “impose restrictions” under the Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier decision.

Since the Statesman is not a public forum, the school claims it is an “educational and curriculum endeavor.” However, student journalists such as Selman say limiting the Statesman’s content does just the opposite.

“The practice of prior review does nothing but hinder education and make students feel as if they are incapable of making their own decisions,” Selman said. “It results in a weaker publication and a long list of impacts on education.”

This November, the dispute was furthered when administration censored the Statesman’s Nov. 20 issue, objecting to stories about Code of Conduct breaches by honors students, teenage pregnancies and the rise of shoplifting. Selman said when her staff decided to leave the front page blank in protest, administrators instead forced them to feature alternate stories they had approved.

Had students not consented, they would have failed their journalism class.

“They censored the entire issue, but then turned around the next day and told us we had an hour to put together a paper in the way they wanted us to. We received a packet delineating the exact format of the paper as requested by the administration,” Selman said. “They forced us to put a features story on the front page, and the pregnancy and honors student story were not printed.”

Essentially, the students felt the issue did not reflect their work in the least.

“We asked that an editors’ note be published explaining why the paper was not up to our standards, which was turned down. We also requested that our bylines be removed from the paper, not wanting our names attached to something we felt was not ours,” Selman said. “Again, they refused.”

A school spokesperson said the honors student story was ruled as unprintable because it included anonymous sources who admitted to illegal activity. However, that was not the case the following month when the staff attempted to publish an article about birth control. This time, administrators said that the article revealed personal medical information about a student.

“The school did not want to put medical information about a student into the public. They would not allow us to make her anonymous, so we ended up running a blank page,” Selman said. “When the administration censored the December issue, it was clear that they intended to continue censoring without reason.”

This year (2009-10), the school divided the Statesman production class into two separate sections, despite students pleas the change would drastically impact their production. With the end of the first semester, however, the school had moved the students’ schedules around again to allow for only one class – again forcing the staff to readjust. Seeing these and the school’s prior actions equal to forcing her to practice bad journalism, Selman and several other Statesman staff members quit the newspaper by withdrawing from the class associated with its production.

“Mainly, we refuse to compromise our ethics and standards that we hold so closely,” Selman said. “It is unfair of a school, or anyone for that matter, to ask a student or person to give up what they believe in.”

Currently, only four students remain in the class. The small staff originally intended to publish their Jan. 28 issue on schedule, however, it has been delayed as a result of their lack of numbers. The first issue published Feb. 12.

As for the remainder of the Statesman’s former staff, Selman said the future is uncertain.

“We are currently considering all of our options, but we have gotten a number of offers from companies willing to sponsor Web sites and publications for us completely independent of the school. We will be pursuing one of those options,” Selman said.

Jimmy Hibsch is the Editor-in-Chief of The Pacer at Rolling Meadows High School (IL)

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Stevenson board claims Statesman not a public forum; the censorship beat continues

Posted by on Dec 18, 2009 in Blog, Hazelwood, Law and Ethics, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments

According to Lincolnshire, Il, Board of Education president Bruce Lubin at a board of education meeting Dec. 17, the Statesman, a focal point of censorship issues over the last two years, is not a public forum but rather “an educational and curriculum endeavor.”

The whole statement can be found at Stevenson High’s Web site.

The board clams “informal” review has taken place for years in the statement. The statement also cited Hazelwood as rationale for the board to “impose restrictions on a newspaper of this type, provided that their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

Stevenson officials today censored another story, this one on student use of prescription drugs and using named sources. The school cited its responsibility not to publish private student information even though the student had given reporters permission to use the name.

Still, the board’s statement sees only positives over the controversy.

“The current questions surrounding the Statesman have had at least one positive result,” the board statement continued. “While Stevenson has had an informal practice of pre-publication prior review for the Statesman for years, recent events have enabled the administration, faculty, and student journalists to have conversations that have provided more focus and are leading to the development of more specific procedures and practices for providing feedback and suggestions to our journalism students. Within the next month, our administration, journalism teachers, and students will be working collaboratively to draft clear procedures and guidelines to improve communication and provide our students with clear expectations for their work in the journalism program.”

Student editors have repeatedly said said they are being forced away from responsible journalism and learning.

According to the Chicago BreakingNewsCenter, editor Pam Selman said at last night’s meeting, “The worst part about it all is that (the censorship) is not just unlawful — it’s bad teaching and bad journalism. The fact that we are students does not deprive us of our rights as journalists working on a limited public forum to be free from unreasonable restraint.”

The board now argues the Statesman is not a public forum.

At any rate, the board’s statement continues the puzzle that is Stevenson High. The board reiterates its belief it is an exemplary learning community. Journalism students, meanwhile, only learn more about restraint and review even though their course description presents the following:

Journalism: Newspaper Production (Accelerated )

ENG951-Semester 1, ENG952-Semester 2

Open to 10-11-12 Full Year

Prerequisite: Journalistic Writing

Students do all the work necessary to produce the school newspaper, the Statesman. Staff positions include managing editors, copy editor, design editor, advertising manager, photo manager, page editors (news, opinions, sports, in-depth and feature), reporter and photographer. Staff members gather news, research and write copy, and help complete pages. Students who hope to be photographers are encouraged to take a photography course through the Art Department. Because this is a student publication, all responsibilities, from the planning of the content to the design of an issue to the processing of photos and the completion of pages, are handled by students. Afterschool work is necessary to the completion of each issue. This course may be taken more than once for credit. While students are welcome to enroll if they meet the prerequisite, they must complete the interview and application process in the spring to be considered for admission.

Collaboration, so far, seems very one-sided and directive.

And, as seen in this college editor’s column, Stevenson is not the only school changing the playing field. Additionally, censorship continues at Timberland High in Wentzville, Missouri.

For additional stories, see the Chicago BreakingNewsCenter story. Read the Daily Herald story.

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