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Latest controversy reminds us of work to be done

Never a dull moment in the world of high school censorship, it seems. The latest controversy comes from Bernalillo (N.M.) High School regarding a cartoon pulled from the student newspaper, The Basement.
As with many of these situations, I’m disturbed by more than one aspect of the story. To minimize my choir-preaching here, I’ll skip the disappointment about another principal shortchanging students’ learning by taking away their power to make important decisions regarding content. I’ll move past the part about students’ voices being stifled and the irony that the cartoon, now available online, will reach far more eyeballs than if the principal had allowed its publication as originally planned.

Here’s what disturbed me most about the situation: The principal “hosted a debate Monday about the rights of student journalists.”

I’m all for public discourse, civil dialogue and any kind of event that might bring heightened awareness to First Amendment rights. But it sounds here like this was a staged event, a la American Idol, in which attendees could determine the fate of student media.

I don’t believe the First Amendment is up for debate, but principals continue to argue otherwise.

Opening the conversation to a town hall-style debate reminds me that we need to do more to educate the average reader, voter, parent, legislator, community member and student about student press rights. We need to continue to raise our collective voices.

Here are a few suggestions to guide students and advisers in their brainstorming for 2012:

1. Host a First Amendment Symposium. The Indiana High School Press Association folks do a great job with their symposium and can serve as a model for other states or groups. Student media groups need to be the ones shaping the discussion rather than being the ones affected by knee-jerk reactions.

2. Go crazy with positive press rights propaganda. I loved the “Bill of Rights on a Stick” from the JEA/NSPA Minneapolis convention adviser bags and generally favor anything fun and interactive that might spread our message. Whether your students promote a free First Amendment mobile app like one the here (although it’s too bad it has so many ads), create a special First Amendment issue of their publication, design new T-shirts focused on the important decision-making skills from their rights and responsibilities, host a question-and-answer event at the public library or some other event, now is the time.

We have three months until Scholastic Journalism Week and plenty of resources at our disposal. Let’s share ideas here for how to make the next set of public events ones we host, ones that educate our stakeholders and ones that keep free student expression a priority.

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