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Just this once


In the 1970s, the American Library Association released a film for use in schools called The Speaker. The film dealt with multi-level decision making concerning free speech.

One line sticks in my mind: Just this once.

As in “what’s wrong if just this once we stop someone from speaking.”

Over the years, this translated into the realm of prior review: so what if just this once the principal prior reviews student media. Who is harmed? What is lost? How will it hurt? Who will care?

And, after all this time, journalism advisers and teachers do not have an common answer for the issues surrounding prior review.

For some, prior review gets teachers off the hook. It is a safety cushion where someone else takes the responsibility for decisions made.

For some, tolerating it or embracing it means a job. In this economy one almost cannot blame them.

For some, prior review means following commercial media when the publisher sometimes can say yay or nay to content.

For these and other reasons the scholastic journalism community has, for far too long, been unwilling to really confront this elephant in the room of journalistic learning.

Now, though, we are seeing more and more fruits of allowing just this once as it applies to prior review:

• Solid programs with solid advisers are falling to the spread of prior review. The latest is in Minnesota.
• Prior restraint, not a safer school or real educational growth, is the product of prior review.
• Administrators are starting to ask for proof that schools exist without prior review. Why?  Because they just don’t believe schools exist with review since that is what administrative consulting groups and school lawyers tell them. The latest instance of this comes from Colorado.
• Several administrative consulting groups across the nation, even though they don’t say they do, endorse in open or subtle ways administrative control of student media. Prior review. For self-protection. Because it is the safe thing to do.

Because the spread of prior review by those outside the staffs of student media is so extensive, so pervasive, we as journalism educators must do more than condemn this issue. We must raise challenges that ask:

• What are workable alternatives to prior review? And then create and distribute them.
• How do we show the practice has no educational value and in fact harms student educational growth? And model our beliefs.
• How do we show that truthful, accurate and complete reporting by student media cannot take place in an atmosphere of prior review? And showcase the solid programs where such reporting thrives.
• Does the risk of just this once dropping prior review outweigh administrative fears of students running amuck? And publicize the excellence of students, who without prior review consistently show their learning works.

Our goals should thus include:

• Clear demonstration, through the use of nationwide examples, that free and responsible student media means student decision making without prior review. Not responsible to mother school but to the idea of truth and serving the school’s various publics.
• Clear documentation that schools do prosper without prior review and that their numbers are substantial. We need to let each other know when our programs are public forums by policy or practice, and we need to do so proudly so those numbers make on impact on those who claim otherwise.
• Clear modeling to administrators that their best way to monitor student media is to hire qualified and caring advisers and teachers who empower students to grow by practicing what they are taught.

It is time to actively implement our beliefs, to remind those who support prior review they are wrong.

Just this once – before it is too late.

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