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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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Illinois paper calls for public discussion of issues at Stevenson High

Posted by on Dec 3, 2009 in Blog, Law and Ethics, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments

The Pioneer press, local paper for Lincolnshire, Illinois, today editorially called for public discussion of the issues surrounding censorship of The Statesman at Stevenson High School.

Last spring, the paper had editorialized against the students.

Now is the time for Stevenson administrators, faculty and students to share their opinions and hear from people with diverse views about issues upon which the Stevenson controversies have touched: Should reporters use anonymous sources — especially if those sources accuse other people of breaking the law? How do administrators keep oversight of a school newspaper from turning into an extension of a school’s public relations department? How do professional journalists respond to potential conflicts of interest, and what should student journalists and educators do when they face conflicts?” the paper stated in today’s editorial.

You can read the entire editorial here.

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Students forced to publish censored paper

Posted by on Nov 24, 2009 in Law and Ethics, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments

Turkeys in the news tomorrow may not be just on people’s plates.

Lately, some have been dressed as administrators at Stevenson High in Lincolnshire, Illinois.

First, school officials’ objections held up the paper’s initial release. Then they forced journalism students to remove  several stories and several pages from the latest issue.

Next, administrators demanded the issue run despite student objections. According to information in the Daily Herald and Chicago Tribune, administrators wouldn’t allow students to remove their bylines from the stories and threatened to fail the student journalists if they did not do as told.

Prior review, administrators said last year when a previous dispute occurred, would only last a short time.

They were right about one thing. Review is now prior restraint of the least educationally defensible kind.

Executive director of the Student Press Law center, Frank LoMonte, called administrative actions a confession that they had lied.

Stevenson’s conduct today is a confession that its administrators lied when they claimed in a press release last week that they had problems with only one story in the Statesman,” he said. “We trust that the school board will immediately investigate the source of this intentionally false public statement and will remove any employee who played a role in distributing it.

LoMonte also praised student editors.

“Student editors have dealt with Stevenson in an honest, professional and restrained manner, attempting to work out a peaceful resolution. Their reward for it was a sucker-punch in the gut. To threaten the highest-achieving students in the school with flunking journalism, potentially endangering their college careers, simply confirms that Stevenson puts its image ahead of the well-being of its students. When a school tries this hard to silence student journalism, the public should start asking hard questions about what is going on at Stevenson High School that its administrators are so desperate to conceal.”

This Thanksgiving the communities that send their students to Stevenson definitely may want to be thinking of ways to deal with these leftover turkeys.

For related reporting and coverage, go here, here, here and here.

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Stevenson HS journalists forced to print changed paper

Posted by on Nov 24, 2009 in Law and Ethics, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments

Illinois: Stevenson HS student journalists forced to print administratively-changed paper Wednesday.

http://tinyurl.com/yflw3mu

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Fighting scholastic media censorship must start locally

Posted by on Nov 23, 2009 in Blog, Law and Ethics, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments

They just keep on coming.

Stevenson High. Timberland High. Stow-Munroe Falls High. Boonville High and others too numerous to list.

And those are just some we know about.

But there are countless others — the smaller, lesser known stories you hear about at workshops like the recent JEA/NSAP convention in DC.

• Like the Virginia  student journalist who needed suggestions on how to work with a principal about prior review because the principal offered no justification for censoring topics administrators considered negative to the school.

• Like the Michigan school who wanted guidelines on how to report controversial issues so they could remain review-free.

• Like the student who would not say what state she was from, just that she was from the Bible Belt. She sought help on how to report on her principal being “under persecution” because of discussion of Christian issues

• Like the South Carolina student journalist trying to understand why her conservative community was upset about the reporting on a pregnant teen.

Each of these instances deserves our attention as much as the larger, more publicized instances.

To help journalism teachers and advisers, we need to know when to offer our help and why. It is much harder to assist these students, advisers and parents if we don’t know the issues and the ways we can help.

If your student media face censorship or prior review, please let us know so we can act to support in ways you feel best for your situation.

Here are some ways:

• Report the issue to the Student Press Law Center .

• Complete a censorship report by going to The Center for Scholastic Journalism to report censorship or prior review, and fill out the forms.

• If the adviser is a member of JEA, activate the organization’s Adviser Assistance Program by contacting your state JEA representative, your regional director or JEA headquarters. You can get that information from the JEA Web site.

• Leave a comment on this blog. A member of JEA’s press rights commission or members of the other commissions (certification, curriculum, multi-cultural or middle school) will get back to you.

Help us know who needs assistance and attention from the most well-known to the smallest issue.

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