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Does prior review have educational value?


Or, what students learn when they submit to prior review?

From SPRC Vault 2 | Prior Review

by John Bowen, MJE

The last From the SPRC Vault focused on April Fools and other knowingly false and potentially dangerous publishing. It is potentially dangerous because it could lead to legal, ethical and negative situations that bring prior review, fear of negative public relations and misperceptions about the role of student journalism.

A recent story from a Kansas high school showed the strength of effective student journalism. It also delivered a timely message how and why prior review can limit knowledge communities need to know.

Journalism students at Lawrence High, Lawrence, Kansas, convinced administrators to remove journalism students’ files from an AI driven surveillance system. 

Four journalism students spent months, they said, interviewing administrators and others about how the surveillance system invade student privacy and might violate First Amendment protections. Kansas is one of 17 “New Voices” states protecting Student First Amendment expression.
To see the article about the students’ fight, go here. Prior review art by Pixel.

crop author with pen and paper working at table

If we closely examine reporting about prior review by school officials, we would likely find prohibiting unprotected speech ranks lower than squelching protected speech. These aren’t the only causes given for prior review. Others include: bad pubic relations which make the board, city, voters nervous and threatened. Plus anything school officials don’t like, afraid of feedback and the principal sure the school will greatly suffer.

Why? Because articles resulted in three phone calls? Or seniors did less than well on recently changed state graduation tests and the controversial book banning attacks from the local, and active? Review is the common solution to deal with highly charged issues. It existed before the 1950s.

As a novice publications adviser in 1972, one of my first tasks was to peruse newspaper archives which beginning with the first issues, 1921. Since the paper was well-known was because students published weekly as a broadsheet medium and printed in the school’s printshop.

The first obvious example of school official content intervention was in the ‘50s and involved removal of reporting teens motorcycling to school, bopping at all hours on the streets and all the anti-society issues that follow motored bikes. Or that movies suggested happened. Administrators found out about the story and asked to see it.

The magic word, instead of controversial but well done, seems to be control.

You can guess what came next.

Admins banned the story saying such radical content would enflame the community, parents would complain and property values would drop if publication occurred..

The article was published, but not for the public. They missed seeing the figurative red tide of knowing about motorcycles.

Reporting in the ‘60s did not ease fears or prior review.

Times changed after the ’50s.  The 1969 U. S. Supreme Court Tinker v. Des Moines decision was the first of many cases (some sources say at least 60) reinforcing the idea school publications should be more than public relations tools.  

Student journalists had opportunities to practice constitutional guarantees in some schools, but not everyone was thrilled with the Tinker decision.   Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Susie Gharib wrote in 1982 many greater Cleveland area administrators said, “…image is the issue” over content of school papers, and that “school administrators don’t want parents to have a bad image of their school.” 

A 1985 article in National Association of School Administrators by Lu Fulbright, “Tips for Principals,” noted “Principals have been tossing and turning at press time since 1969, when federal judges ruled in Tinker students do not ‘shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.’”  

The problem, Fulbright wrote, was “how do you formulate rules that uphold all students’ rights and  protect the school  environment?” 

Common topics concerning school officials then were prior review, which included the war, the draft, poverty, racism, drugs and other ills of society. These helped Fear escalate an uneasy of sensitive concerns. Prior restraint, already saturated with plenty of Fear. Increasing instances of prior review was the napalm of education and not far behind.

As prior review and restraint continued to balloon in the ‘60s and ’70s, changs in scholastic media seemed to accelerate accordingly. Attitudes of Question Authority, about the war, the draft, Imperialism, drugs and death quickly mutated in an already toxic atmosphere. In some ways scholastic media, assisted by court decisions, particularly Tinker, mirrored the tension fanned by Fear and censorship.

In many ways, student journalism opened people’s eye on hatred and racism as music heightened ideas of social responsibility. Society and schools moved as quickly to shutter eyes just opened to society’s ills.

Today, as then, the outcome of lawsuits, protests and walkouts supporting free expression in schools, along with other student concerns, is mixed.

For example, few if any federal court or Supreme Court decisions prevent prior review. None I know of mandate it. That suggests no formal or legal standard exists of “Tinker” or “Hazelwood” states. Schools may follow Tinker or choose Hazelwood, depending on defining responsible legal terminology. The state does not dictate review status.

Concepts such as “legitimate pedological concern,” forum for student expression, who has decision-making control of content and editorial policy become almost subversive in the fight to end censorship.

Important questions remain about challenging review

In 1983, following numerous court cases granting students expanded free expression rights, graduate student Nicholas Kristoff (and later professional journalist, columnist and activist) further explored the intensity of Fulbright’s views.  Kristoff conducted a national study which he called “a conservative view” reflected four main arguments in support of restraining expression on high school campuses:  
• Free speech would lead to insubordination and would undermine respect for teachers to the point students would learn less;
• High school students are not yet mature enough to handle publishing responsibilities;
• Censorship is not an issue of rights, but an issue of how to teach good journalism. The paper is not seen as a forum but a laboratory project for the teacher to use in the journalism class;
• Censorship is a practical necessity to screen for libel and to prevent community outrage. 

Kristoff strongly disagreed with Fulbright and offered four counter-arguments against administrative censorship. He called them the liberal view:
• Rights, not authority and discipline, prepare students for roles as citizens in a democracy;
• Potential for abuse is not seen as a sufficient reason to withhold a right or privilege;
• Since a newspaper is a forum of ideas, with ideas there is no right or wrong;
• The solution is to hold the students and the newspaper, not the school, liable for damages.

The conservative view, he wrote, “reflects an authoritarian tradition in education that sought to imbue youngsters with respect for their elders as a moral value.” 

“It would be absurd,” Kristoff continued, “if a student could criticize his congressman but not his principal, if he could protest draft registration but not his school’s attendance policy –- those things the student has the greatest chance of affecting.”  

Censorship, he wrote, is the greatest threat to order because the conflicts it engenders spill over to the classrooms and distract students.

Student journalists able to ask thorough questions about prior review or restraint, suggests students make sound journalistic decisions and actions without review and restraint. They should have knowledge of court decisions and how to apply their interpretation. They should have situational training in ethics. They should know their publication’s mission statement and how it works with an editorial policy and ethical guidelines All interact tone a foundation for journalistic excellence.

Student journalists need to explain positives/negatives of working as designated public forums so stakeholders trust and believe in student actions, without uninformed administrative interference.

Students need questions to ask those who favor unfettered prior review, among other legal and ethical issues. And, they need to perceive and respond to answers. Actions need to calmly, rationally and clearly outline the crux of issues so others see training, skills and principles journalism students bring to their work. 

Students, who have been censored and not encouraged to think for themselves or research material for themselves, will not see any need for the media to do so. Those who have been censored and told the tenets of democracy exist only in textbooks and only for those of a certain age may come to believe it. 

Question Authority was a common activist saying in the ’60s. In the next several decades journalists added: And question what they tell you.

Authoritarian governments, when seeking control, “always first control the press because they control the way people share information and ideas,” wrote Robert Dardenne in his Poynter Paper, A Free and Responsible Student Press in 1996.

We seem to be back to the magic word: control.

Dardenne indicated the student press and the professional press share information with their communities, which are sometimes the same, and thus should be treated the same. 

“Students are not exempt from responsibility and decision making,” he wrote. “Therefore, they need information a free student press can provide and help them share.  The student press provides a model that helps all the students in the community learn how to form and discuss ideas, think critically and analyze information and it encourages them to get involved in their community.” 

Remember, it’s not prior review and restraint that brings educational value to those who need accurate, complete information in context. It’s the credibility and integrity of student journalists who appl values of what competent advisers encourage and guide.

These are issues student journalists might raise, questions they might ask so all sides can move forward … together.

• How does prior review help students learn and advisers practice journalism?

• What is the purpose of the review? To prevent misinformation? To protect the school’s image? To enhance student learning? To provide accurate information to the school’s communities (including voters)? Which of the reasons given for review are educationally valid fitting within Hazelwood’s framework?

Questions students could ask those who support prior review
JEA suggests anyone faced with prior review ask administrators the following questions:
• How does prior review help students learn and advisers practice journalism?
• What is the purpose of the review? To prevent misinformation? To protect the school’s image? To enhance student learning? To provide accurate information to the school’s communities (including voters)? Which of the reasons given for review are educationally valid fitting within Hazelwood’s framework?
• What happens after review? Deletion of all or part of a story? If deletion, or telling students to remove copy or change it, how does this affect the truthful and accurate reporting a school’s community should expect from its media?
• Would this review be better carried out by students trained in journalism? What skills (and motives) do administrators bring to the review? How does review affect the school’s curriculum, especially student learning? Does review provide the lessons curriculum intends?
• How does administrator review of student work affect the school’s liability? Does administrative or faculty review, since the reviewers are agents of the state, reflect our democratic traditions and heritage? Does review change how community members perceive the truth?
• Isn’t there a better way? JEA understands not all advisers are permitted to practice without review and restraint. We understand it is often hard for teachers to fight it. We know the pressures that can be brought to bear on jobs. All we ask is advisers and teachers do the best they can to show the educational weakness and lack of logic in prior review.
• We know teachers sometimes have no choice, no alternative. It is up to JEA to try to create one.

More questions about prior review:
1. What other definitions of prior review might exist in the professional journalism and educational communities? In administrative communities?
2. What does Hazelwood really say about prior review? What is the basis of the court’s decision and what does it really mean? What have other courts said about the general concept of prior review and restraint?
3. What are valid educational reasons for prior review? Not reasons of personal comfortor generalizations about school safety? Learning and classroom reasoning. How do we answer the question “how can I prevent illegal content or unprotected speech from publication?” 
4. If we can agree prior review has no legitimate educational value, what can we design that can take its place and still leave a feeling of protection for all the stakeholders in the educational process?
5. What can we create that will show this? Is there a history we can showcase to prove this point? How has this prior restraint improved the educational process or safety of schools where it exists? What provable educational studies/research/standards exist to show the effectiveness of prior review or restraint?
6. Why don’t these “learned societies” respect the educational value of prior review of restraint? Why do administrative or other school official groups condone the practice of prior review?
7. Can we show case studies where prior review does not exist and use these models to build a process of avoiding prior review?
8. Can we summarize these studies and build from the recommendations for a process to replace prior review?
9. What does a cross section of commercial media personnel have to say about prior review? What journalism and both the freedoms and responsibilities that go with it?
10. Why does the Journalism Education Association suggest its Adviser Code of Ethics might be a good initial replacement for prior review?

Why JEA condemns Prior Review
We believe prior review:
• Contradicts the school’s responsibility to teach and maintain, through example, the principles of democracy;
• Enables school administrators, who are government officials, to decide in advance what people will read or know. Such officials are potential newsmakers, and their involvement with the news-making process interferes with the public’s right to know;
• Creates the possibility of viewpoint discrimination, undermining the marketplace of ideas and all pretext of responsible journalism;
• Leads toward self-censorship, the most chilling and pervasive form of censorship. Such fear eliminates any chance of critical thinking, decision-making or respect for the opinions of others. • Stifles growth of students so they do not grow into thinking, discerning, effective contributing citizens in the democracy; • Impairs the ability of a school’s communities to discern the truth about the school and the accuracy of information citizens need to make accurate decisions and cast intelligent votes;
• Negates the educational value of a trained, professionally active adviser and teacher working with students in a counseling, educational environment. Prior review simply makes the teacher an accessory, as if what is taught really doesn’t matter
;Instead, we believe
• Rights, not authority and discipline, prepare students for roles in a democracy as thinking, discerning, contributing citizens;
• Student media best serves their communities only when editorially independent as they present truthful and accurate information;
• Student media are safe and peaceful places a for dissemination of ideas, and with ideas there is no clear right or wrong;
• Ultimate civic engagement and involvement only occur where students learn that they can practice constitutional guarantees;
• Responsible journalism occurs when a qualified faculty adviser, clear publications policies and professionally oriented journalism curriculum exist;
• Prior review interferes with the dynamic process of learning. Such review and censorship are the last resort of an educational system failing its present and future citizens

First and perhaps the most crucial question to ask: Prove prior review has legitimate pedagogical/educational value.