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Seems like you never know … until it’s too late

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by Candace Bowen, MJE Your principal is a good one who answers questions for your news staff and encourages your yearbook staff to tell what really happened this year. Even Twitter and Instagram have not been a problem for your journalism students.

Sure, you and your staff share stories with your principal when they cover sensitive topics. Yes, you’ve asked her views on quotes from other sources. So what? She’s a good administrator, and you’re just being thoughtful. What’s wrong with that?

Maybe plenty.

But let’s back up a bit. An early May discussion strand on the JEAHELP email distribution list centered around a former New Jersey adviser who is now suing her district for not allowing her to tell the real story about prior review and censorship at her school in 2017.

A junior who wore a t-shirt saying, in large letters: “TRUMP: Make American Great Again” in his yearbook photo ended up with a plain navy shirt in the published version. In the ensuing brouhaha, the district would not let adviser Susan Parsons tell the REAL story: New Jersey online said, “Parsons claims the district routinely forced her to edit yearbook photos to alter anything that could be controversial, from words on T-shirts to hand gestures to students not wearing shirts on a school trip.”

This time community members were so upset, Parsons received death threats and says she is now afraid to go out in the community – largely because she has not been allowed to defend herself and point out the true censors were administrators, or, in this case, she says, a secretary acting on the principal’s behalf.

The JEAHELP listserv posts that followed information about this incident covered a wide range of viewpoints. One said, “Prior review can be a positive thing in a friendly environment,” admitting, however, it is “a slippery slope.” 

Others argued the chilling effect of prior review almost makes it unnecessary to have true censorship – prior restraint – because students either are afraid to publish something they think might upset their administrators or worry that what they do will negatively impact their favorite teacher. 

Then one said exactly what I was thinking at the time: When has prior review ever been good from an educational standpoint? When has it taught good critical thinking skills? When did it help students become better media consumers or understand media’s role as the Fourth Estate, the very necessary check on governmental power? When did it lay down the foundation for future journalists, for those in student media who wish to have this as a career?

Then one said exactly what I was thinking at the time: When has prior review ever been good from an educational standpoint? When has it taught good critical thinking skills? When did it help students become better media consumers or understand media’s role as the Fourth Estate, the very necessary check on governmental power? When did it lay down the foundation for future journalists, for those in student media who wish to have this as a career?

But some kept arguing they had good relationships with their administrators and gave examples of times a really thorough discussion with the principal or others helped students understand a problem.

Fine. But that principal may not be at your school next fall. 

According to the National Education Policy Center,“Only about one-half of newly hired middle school principals remained at the same school for three years, while only 30 percent remained at the high school level for three years. After five years, less than one-half of newly hired middle school principals remained, and only 27 percent of high school principals.”

In other words, that understanding man or woman behind the principal’s desk may be replaced before you know it by someone whose legal training isn’t as First Amendment-based and whose biggest concern is the school’s image, not how much its students learn. 

Having a policy of prior review with that administrator won’t be a chance to discuss and learn more. It will be the very opposite of good education, but you’ll have little chance to change things then. After all, the prior review policy would have already been in effect.

Having a policy of prior review with that administrator won’t be a chance to discuss and learn more. It will be the very opposite of good education, but you’ll have little chance to change things then.

So don’t even give any administrator an idea to start down that slope.  It could lead to a law suit like Susan Parsons has filed. And, definitely, it wouldn’t be the best way for your students to learn.

A good resource to use:
What to tell your principal about prior review?

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