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Despite state legislation protecting student media, students face constraints, including required changes in content

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by Stan Zoller, MJE

Imagine this scenario.

You’re at an airport when you are approached by a security guard who, after noticing your press credentials, staff T-shirt or other items that identifies you as a journalist, says, “You write propaganda, right?” And you are allowed to pass only after you agree. 

Court cases and Hazelwood timeline

Farfetched?

It may seem that way, but it’s sad reality because last month, Ben Watson, a news editor for Defense One, an Atlantic Media site, found himself the subject of an uncomfortable interview. He was held up at passport control in Dulles International Airport by a Customs and Border Protection officer, who repeatedly asked him, “You write propaganda, right?”

The chiding and abusive comments toward the media seem to be, sadly, more commonplace these days. And, sadly enough, student journalists are not immune to this kind of behavior.

Imagine if in addition to “admitting” you wrote propaganda, officials kept your media from being distributed.

Again, farfetched? Not really.

 Just ask the staff of the Central Times, the student newspaper at Naperville (Illinois) Central High School.

As reported in a Nov. 12 online story on the Student Press Law Center’s website Illinois school district censors, the Central Times faced a wrath of constraints by the school and District 203 administration.  The school, as noted in the report by SPLC reporter Joe Severino, prior reviewed the Central Times and then delayed its distribution. The Central Times was also required to make revisions to content on its online edition.

In short, it appears the Central Times staff became the target of administrators because the staff researched and reported a story that school and district administrators didn’t want them to report.

That, sadly enough, is not unusual. However, the strength and vigor that administrators have fought the staff and the adviser was apparently unprecedented. The story was about a student with special needs, who according to adviser, Keith Carlson, CJE, had been disruptive to the point that, between classes, halls have been cleared so he can go from one class to another.

The Central Times staff reportedly worked doggedly on the story and apparently was on track to get the paper out without any issues. Somewhere, however, the train was derailed.

Carlson said via email the staff “worked diligently to gather up as many interviews as possible…working strategically to first talk to students about the recent events and then to talk to {the school’s} staff.

Because of the intensity of the alleged incidents, students, faculty and staff knew the identity of the student, but the Central Times staff followed confidentiality guidelines. They did, however, wonder if there were additional issues behind the decision to “mainstream” the student and sought answers and clarifications regarding staffing and budgeting for students with special needs.

Not only did they work within the realm of tight journalistic ethics, they did so within the framework of Illinois’ ‘New Voices’ law (PA 99-0678).

As previously noted, that did not seem to matter as it appears the school and district administration decided to dissect the Illinois’ Speech Rights of Scholastic Journalists Act to make it work in their favor in order to squash student journalists.

Nice support.

In other words, admit you’re propagating propaganda.

As Rodney Dangerfield would say, there has been “no respect.”

The obvious first step is to contact the SPLC for its legal support, which Carlson and the Central Times staff did … Advisers should also contact JEA’s Scholastic Press Rights Committee and utilize its ‘panic button’ feature that will make additional support and resources available … Advisers whose program is embattled should seek the assistance of other stakeholders, including parents and community advocacy groups that have not only the students’ interest at heart, but also support for First Amendment rights and press freedom.

So, what can an adviser do when administrators usurp the law and turn to bullying?

The obvious first step is to contact the SPLC for its legal support, which Carlson and the Central Times staff did. And while there is no greater friend of student journalism than the SPLC, it seems the administrators cast an arrogant shadow toward it as if it was just a little organization that tries to help high school journalists and that’s it.

Advisers should also contact JEA’s Scholastic Press Rights Committee and utilize its ‘panic button’ feature that will make additional support and resources available.

But don’t stop there.

Advisers whose program is embattled should seek the assistance of other stakeholders, including parents and community advocacy groups that have not only the students’ interest at heart, but also support for First Amendment rights and press freedom.

As administrators may take exception to outside interference, advisers facing this kind of situation, or similar situations, face a difficult challenge: toe the company line, or defend journalistic freedom.

It’s a difficult choice because if administrators take exception to your passion for such mundane things as the First Amendment or a ‘New Voices’ law, they can, unfortunately, find ways to make your job miserable or take disciplinary actions against you.

Another example of nice support

Sadly, there are no winners when content of student media becomes what appears to be an administrative battle.

If nothing else, the mixed signals coming from the ivory towers are giving students a lesson in civics – but it’s a bad lesson. In 2015, a law went into effect in Illinois that requires a one-semester civics course for all high school students. A major focus of the initiative to get that law passed was the importance of a free and responsible news media.

Which makes good sense.

However, from the apparent actions by the administrators in Naperville School District 203 what’s needed is common sense.

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