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Hazelwood leaves too much room
for limitation of student voices


by Ellen Austin

25 years of Hazelwood artHazelwood stories: I began my journalism advising career in Minnesota, a Hazelwood state. Teaching at a small public school, the shadow of Hazelwood was a reality. My principal wanted to read the paper in advance, and tried to use Hazelwood as a justification for that request. I was lucky that I had some great mentors to call at NSPA in Minneapolis and at other successful newspapers in the area who coached me.

It took several conversations to bring my principal to a place where “reviewing” the paper became, “Please get me a copy before everyone else reads it, so I know what’s happening if the phone’s start ringing.”

I was lucky: I had a reasonable principal whose major concern was doing his job well for the school at large. He was not a martinet, and he was comfortable with the idea that students were learning firsthand the tools of democracy through their work on their school paper.

Not every student article shines as a sample of great writing and bias-free prose. Not every student article remains fair to the community about which it is written.  But not allowing students to practice their right to free speech and freedom of the press in our nation’s schools is akin to never letting a driver practice driving a car before handing her keys and turning her loose on an interstate at the age of 18.

A ruling like Hazelwood, with its ambiguities and wide latitude of interpretation, leaves too much room for an administrator to create a vise-like grip on the voices of students.

Democracy, like driving, requires practice and a safe place for that practice.

Hazelwood ages, but the online world continues to morph and expand, The restrictive powers granted to school officials through Hazelwood  can allow the squelching of trained, guided, and curricular work in journalism in a school setting.

But, by disabling the campus option for debate and discussion, by removing a trained teacher who can provide ethics training and consistency in writing instruction, and by preventing an adult sounding board for the discussion of issues being discussed, students can easily choose to circumvent school papers and websites completely, and instead go online through any number of sites that live outside the purview of the school’s reach — and outside the rules of good journalistic practices.

The sorrow I have about Hazelwood’s chilling effect goes beyond the students, however; I’ve watched dozens of passionate, skilled, well-trained adviser colleagues forced out of their classrooms by fearful or angry administrators in retaliation for work — usually, the ideas of the work — published in a school newspaper. Another longtime adviser in a nearby state resigned just last week, posting a farewell note to our national online group about her fatigue in trying to do a good job in the face of constant restriction.

This country’s foundations were laid with fractious debates and intense discussions. “Being nice and avoiding controversy” is not language found in our constitutional amendments. What does abide in our Constitution’s language is the emphasis on informed, civil debate and on a citizenry that not only has rights but the freedom to exercise those rights.

Ellen Austin is the 2012 Dow Jones News Fund Journalism Teacher of the Year.





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