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Teacher Appreciation Week
recommendation for principals

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Dear Sir or Madam:

Here’s a little suggestion for Teacher Appreciation Week gift-giving. It will make your journalism teacher happier. Besides it will make you and, most important, your students a lot happier.

My suggestion: An open forum, no-prior-review policy where students, under the guidance of a trained journalism teacher, make the content decisions.

All that freedom sounds scary, you say? Having a Main Office set of eyeballs look over student media before it goes out may sound like a good idea, but doing so has often been a whole lot scarier for some. Consider these lessons from the archives of the Student Press Law Center showing how some principals learned the hard way:

  1. When prior review and censorship stories hit mainstream media, they rarely make an administrator look good. Ask Principal Rob McGee of Neshaminy High School. He insistence on publications using the Redskin name against the wishes of the student editorial board and the subsequent restrictive publications policy proposal has caused a national stir, and the school board has temporarily postponed a vote on policy.
  1. Sometimes such censorship puts administrators in an uncomfortable spotlight. Leon Lundie of Aurora, Colorado, could tell you how that might happen. When he prevented students from writing about a student death during a sporting event – and then denied it – and removed the adviser – and then denied that – and shut down the paper – temporarily, it got free speech advocate Randy Swikle and SPLC attorney Adam Goldstein thinking and investigating. Goldstein’s column in the Huffington Post detailed a long list of plagiarized materials Lundie posted on the school’s website, aimed at parents and the community. He did later admit the words were not his own.
  1. When administrators control content, student journalists can’t make a difference in often important matters. Fond Du Lac High School journalists learned that when their principal instituted prior review in response to a story they ran about student attitude toward rape and sexual assault. “The press has so much power — the power to speak up, to heal and to portray really powerful messages,” editor-in-chief Tanvi Kumar told Lydia Coutré, SPLC staff writer. “And as journalists, we can’t reach our full potential if one body, an authority, is trying to limit this power.”
  1. When students feel they have no voices, they often give up and don’t try to cover important issues. “All we can write about is marshmallow fluff,” one northeast Ohio student journalist complained. She also noted her publication hadn’t won any awards in the last three years. “Writing about the winning football season and cans collected for the food pantry doesn’t make much of a difference,” she said.
  1. When administrators control content, they can’t find out what their students really think. Editorials about new student policies and low school morale written for publication in the Witches Brew weren’t popular with Principal Ann Papagiotas, who demanded something more positive be published. Even though their Massachusetts state law says that’s only permissible to prevent a substantial disruption, she demanded the changes anyway. Harry Proudfoot, then adviser at another school in the state and expert on the law, told the SPLC Report, “Limiting student expression puts administrators in the dark about what’s really going on in their school.”
  1. When administrators control content, sometimes the simplest things become difficult. Case in point the adviser on the JEAHELP listserv who said prior review takes so long at her school, she can’t promise advertisers what the publication date will be. It sets back every issue, she wrote.
  1. When administrators DO NOT control content, they may get off the legal hook. That’s what the courts said in Washington state when students quoted in an school newspaper article about oral sex sued the school district, saying their privacy had been invaded. Both a jury verdict and the Washington Court of Appeals ruled for the school, and the plaintiffs received nothing. The school’s legal defense — that the paper was an open forum with students making content decisions — protected it in court. Then the state supreme court refused to hear the appeal.

Pretty scary, all of these stories.

Perhaps a good way to end Teacher Appreciation Week is to show your journalism teacher and media adviser that trusting the training and advice they give their student staffs is the best way to indicate you value their work.

Sincerely,

A long-time student speech advocate who could scare you with even more stories

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