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Silently, heavily, even if optional, prior review and restraint contribute to a crumbling democracy

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by Lindsay Coppens The Harbinger adviser, Algonquin Regional High School, Northborough, Mass.

A few weeks ago there was widespread reaction when news broke that the National Archives in Washington D.C. had blurred anti-Trump protest signs in a photograph from the 2017 Women’s March.

Yesterday, The Washington Post reported a similar mural-sized image had been removed from a Library of Congress exhibit days before the exhibit opened last year.

According to a Jan. 17 Post article, a National Archives spokesperson said they blurred critical references to the president’s name “so as not to engage in current political controversy.” A later statement from the National Archives acknowledged “they were wrong to alter the image.” 

The Post’s Jan. 31 article on The Library of Congress’s decision stated, “The library’s decision is the second-known instance of a federal government institution acting to prevent images it determined to be critical of Trump from being shown to the public.”

While investigations into both incidents indicate the decisions were made internally, without pressure or review from outside officials, the altering and removal of these images highlights one of the biggest concerns I have with the widely accepted policy of prior review.

Of course, from a scholastic press rights viewpoint, prior review is incredibly problematic because it allows administration the right to edit and even censor content from scholastic publications.

Unfortunately, in some schools this overt censorship happens.

For the good of student publications, education and democracy in general, prior review and restraint should end.

However, many districts give administrators the right to prior review and the administration does not actively exercise this right. This should be seen as a success, right? A boon to those scholastic publications?

No. Because even if not exercised, that ability exists and hangs silently and weightedly over student publications and their advisers.

While members of the National Archives and Library Congress made their choices to censor and edit internally, it is not a reach to imagine they considered how displaying those critical images might get them in trouble with our nation’s current administration.

When prior review exists, policy makes clear who truly holds the power. Even if that power is not actively used, even if students are told they can make content decisions, students are much more likely to self-censor. 

They, like the archivists and librarians at our great national institutions, may not need to be told to censor something or not publish something. To avoid making waves, to avoid getting in trouble and to avoid the administration censoring them, they will do it to themselves.

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