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Asking questions never goes out of style

Posted by on Sep 3, 2018 in Blog, Legal issues, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments


by Stan Zoller, MJE
A Chicago TV station has the call letters WMAQ. Its origins go back to the 1922 when The Chicago Daily News started the station. Its call letters were known to mean “We Must Ask Questions,” which today would not only be known as solid journalism, but also fact checking.

The Daily News sold the station to NBC in 1931, but the legacy of the call letters continues. Whether it was the intention of William Quinn, publisher of The Chicago Daily News when it started WMAQ to promote good journalism or people just assigned those words to WMAQ, one thing remains constant — asking questions remains a vital part of journalism today.

When journalists – whether students or professional — have even the faintest inkling about something, they need to ask questions. This is true when covering a speech, doing an interview, attending a press conference or a school board meeting.

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Journalists shouldn’t be ‘pawn in game of life’

Posted by on Nov 22, 2017 in Blog, Law and Ethics, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments



by Stan Zoller, MJE
A classic scene from Mel Brooks’ classic, “Blazing Saddles,” is when the ox-riding Neanderthal, Mongo, played by the late Alex Karras, professes to Bart the Sheriff, played by the late Cleavon Little, that “Mongo only pawn in game of life.”

It’s a funny scene, but when you apply the “pawn in the game of life” scenario to scholastic journalism, it loses its humor.

This appears to be the case with the student journalists on the staff of the Evasntonian, the student newspaper at Evanston (Illinois) Township High School.

After the Sept. 22 paper was confiscated by the English Department chairman, reportedly because of a spread students did on student-use of marijuana, questions began to emerge as to why the department chair took the action even though Principal Marcus Campbell knew of the spread. In emails obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, Campbell told some colleagues that “you may get questions, but state law prohibits school administrators from censuring student publications” (sic).

At face value there is reason to be optimistic, albeit a little, on two fronts. The first is that an administrator knows about Illinois’ recently enacted New Voices law, and secondly, he has indicated he’s not going to challenge it.

So why would a subordinate, in this case the English Department chair, over rule him? Good question.

Several sources have told me there are long-standing differences of opinion between the department chair and the adviser and, so it seems she wanted the last word, even it meant usurping the authority of principal.

The perceived personality issue spilled over to the Board of Education, which on Oct. 9 heard from student journalists and representatives of various community organizations. As previously reported on this site, one school board member called for a discussion during open session at the next school board meeting, Nov. 13.

No big deal. However, following a FOI request requesting emails about the Evanstonian situation, the Nov. 13 School Board meeting was highlighted by a 45-minute ripping of the Board member for emailing student journalists and the adviser.

While the terse and unprecedented exchange was the focus of the meeting, what was lost was the resolution of the Evanstonian situation.

According to one of the paper’s student editors, after a meeting with the superintendent, principal and department chair, it was determined that questions relating to the publication would be handled by the principal. According to one student editor, he does not plan to regulate or manipulate the publication’s content. Hopefully he’ll be more proactive.

So, what lies ahead? A lot of monitoring. With the adviser retiring this year, the door is, unfortunately, wide open for the administration to morph the program into its own image by setting strict guidelines for the new adviser.

It will be imperative, albeit a challenge, for journalism educators in the Chicago area to work with the new adviser, perhaps as a JEA mentor, or perhaps through membership in the Illinois Journalism Education Association (IJEA).

No matter what level of experience the new adviser will have, she will need to be well versed on Illinois Public Act 99-0678, the Speech Rights of Scholastic Journalists Act.

The need is simple – to ensure a free and responsible student media at the school – and to keep the student journalists from once again being pawns.

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As ETHS administrators tighten the grip,
they may want to heed pastoral advice

Posted by on Oct 20, 2017 in Blog, Legal issues, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 1 comment


by Stan Zoller, MJE
I had the opportunity to attend an event that was simply called “We the People:  Making Our Voices Heard.”

It featured an “advocacy resource fair” followed by presentations addressing the “State of Our Democracy.”

The first speaker hit the nail on the head about the event’s importance.

“We are doing what we should be doing.  Citizens of the World need to take responsibility of being good citizenry; we need to consider the state of our democracy because an informed citizenry makes good decisions.”


And who made this statement?

A local politician?  Nope.

An educator or school board member?  Nope.

A community activist with a special agenda? Nope.

An impassioned journalist? Nope.

It was Norval Brown. Wait, let me clarify that – Pastor Norval Brown.

Brown is Pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Deerfield, Illinois, which hosted the event because it hosts community events on a regular basis.

Attendees were area residents and representatives of various civic organizations such as Common Cause and local chapters of the League of Women Voters.

Unfortunately, there were no school districts or school boards represented.

And this is where I erred. I should have extended an invitation to the Evanston Township High School (ETHS) Board of Education.

It might have learned a thing or two about civic engagement and why it is important our voices be heard – including student voices.

As was reported here Oct. 12, administrators at ETHS saw fit to confiscate and prohibit distribution of the Sept. 22 issue of The Evanstonian, the school newspaper because it had articles on student use of marijuana. Students were also ordered to remove the paper from the Evanstonian website.

To recap, several members of the Evanstonian staff along with myself and a representative from a local community activist organization made statements at a school building. If there was a ray of hope, as noted in my Oct. 12 posting, it was that one School Board member, Jonathan Baum, called for the matter to be discussed in open session at the next School Board meeting, Monday, Oct. 23.

The district released the following statement Thursday, Oct. 12:

Statement Regarding September 22, 2017 Evanstonian Articles

On September 22, 2017, the Evanston Township High School (ETHS) student newspaper published a series of articles under the heading The Pot Thickens… The two-page spread features six articles, including 6 Questions for a Drug Dealer and School Stress Causes Marijuana Usage. Both articles promote illegal conduct that also violates school policy. For example, the Drug Dealer article states that a reason to sell marijuana is to make money, as much as one hundred-sixty dollars per ounce. The School Stress article states that using marijuana makes a student funnier and more confident. The article goes on to state that a “feeling of euphoria and bliss” is caused by a chemical in marijuana.

 Dr. Marcus Campbell, Principal of ETHS, collaborated with the ETHS administrative team and legal counsel in reviewing the published articles. Dr. Campbell determined that the articles glorify both drug use and drug dealing, messages that are detrimental to ETHS students.

The U.S. Constitution and the Illinois Speech Right of Student Journalists Act both provide student journalists with certain rights to speech that ETHS celebrates. Those rights are limited. When student journalism incites unlawful acts, violation of school policy, or disrupts the school, the administration has the authority to impose limits. The articles on September 22, 2017 did cross these lines and were removed from circulation for that reason.

The statement has more holes in it than a Dunkin’ Donuts. To begin, the U.S. Constitution does not address student press rights because, odds are there was no student media when the Constitution was written. But why sweat details.

Secondly, there is an abysmal lack of clarity regarding Illinois’ Speech Rights of Scholastic Journalists Act. As noted in my Oct. 12 posting, there are four restrictions on scholastic journalists. They address libel, unwarranted invasion of privacy, violation of federal or state law and incitement of students to commit an unlawful act. Period.

A third component that is most irritating is the procedures detailed in the statement are not what students said transpired. Principal Marcus Campbell approved the issue before it was distributed. It was not until the next day when English and Reading Department Chair Samone Jones ordered the confiscation.

If there was a meeting with legal counsel students, parents, faculty, staff and the public were not made aware of it.  For good reason. It did not occur until after Jones ordered the confiscation. Odds are it also did not occur until after Oct. 9 School Board meeting because school officials were not expecting the subject be brought to light at a School Board meeting.

The statement shamefully infers students lied to the School Board and Campbell did not approve the paper.

The statement was issued Oct. 12. The next day student staff members met with Campbell and Superintendent Eric Witherspoon. It appears the ETHS administration is flexing its intimidation muscle as students and the adviser appear reluctant to respond to emails.  Why? Perhaps because they have been warned against sharing information and fear retribution.

My sources indicated that during the meeting Witherspoon said the journalism teacher was responsible for teaching what he called “journalistic shortcomings.”  Additionally, sources tell me Witherspoon made it clear the school could decide not to offer journalism and that the school could “yank the paper next year.”

Witherspoon reportedly supported Jones’ action, saying she has the responsibility to represent the whole school, and there must be “journalistic integrity” and the Evanstonian was not their “personal blog.”

Campbell reportedly told students they “could have worked through this.” What he forgot is they cooperated by showing him the edition before it was scheduled to distributed.  By saying it “could have been worked out” is like installing a smoke detector after the fire department has been called.

Efforts are under way to gain additional information using Illinois FOI laws.

In the meantime, it’s not clear who Witherspoon, Campbell, Jones and the rest of the Board are going to listen to because they seem to have their own ideas.

There is, however, one person they should listen to.

Pastor Brown.

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History should not repeat itself

Posted by on Oct 12, 2017 in Blog, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 1 comment


by Stan Zoller

On Nov. 9, as is the case every year, there will be an observance of Kristallnacht.

Historically, Kristallnacht, often referred to as the Night of Broken Glass, was a 24-hour period, from Nov. 9 to Nov. 10, 1938, when Adolph Hitler ordered troops to ransack the homes and businesses of Jews in Germany and Austria.

In addition to the destruction of homes and businesses, Nazi troops made a concentrated effort to destroy books and other printed materials to prevent not only religious observances, but also learning.

The move by any governing body to prohibit education by destroying, confiscating or preventing dissemination of information is reprehensible.

Especially for student journalists.

But, time and time again stories emerge about overzealous administrators who, for unknown reasons, prohibit distribution of student media.

The latest case is at Evanston (Illinois) Township High School where the Sept. 22 edition of the Evanstonian was confiscated and distribution prohibited.

But not, the paper’s editors told me, by the principal.

By the English Department chair. On a day, no less when the paper’s longtime adviser and journalism teacher, Rodney Lowe, was not at school.

Reasons, you ask?

Students say none were given. They speculate that the eye of her disdain was a two-page spread on student use of marijuana. While some tweaks may have been in order, there was nothing that would have invoked the ire of an administrator, unless he or she is compelled to invoke the late Alexander Haig’s mantra of “I am in charge now.”

But why the department chair and not the principal? That’s a good, no make that great, question because, the day before, the principal saw the paper and did not have a problem with the issue.

[pullquote]The act is clear, noting that:

“This Act does not authorize or protect expression by a student journalist that: (1) is libelous, slanderous, or obscene; (2) constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy; (3) violates federal or State law; or (4) incites students to commit an unlawful act, to violate policies of the school district, or to materially and substantially disrupt the orderly operation of the school.”  [/pullquote]

What may be the most disturbing element of this situation is that officials at Evanston High School seem to have blatantly ignored Illinois law 99-0678, the Free Speech of Scholastic Journalists Act, signed into law in July 2016.

The act is clear, noting that:

“This Act does not authorize or protect expression by a student journalist that: (1) is libelous, slanderous, or obscene; (2) constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy; (3) violates federal or State law; or (4) incites students to commit an unlawful act, to violate policies of the school district, or to materially and substantially disrupt the orderly operation of the school.”

The work done by the Evanstonian staff does not infringe on any of these areas.

In addition to the confiscation and prohibition on distributing the print issues, the department chair demanded that “the article” be stricken from the paper’s website.

The Evanstonian has a long history of excellence.  “… I am distressed this kind of ignorance could possibly take place and at of all places Evanston High School, where one of the most important groundbreaking student newspapers of the past, the Evanstonian, thrived…” longtime adviser Wayne Brasler told me in an email exchange.

That level of excellence has continued as Evanston was the 2015 state champion in the Illinois High School Association’s state journalism tournament.

So, what lies ahead?  Friday, Oct. 13, student staff members of the Evanstonian are scheduled to meet with the superintendent, the principal the department chairman.

While it is nearly a month after the publication date, the meeting comes on the heels of Monday, Oct. 9’s school board meeting in which four student staff members gave eloquent and extremely well-prepared statements.

Also giving statements were myself and Maryam Judar, an attorney who heads the Citizen Advocacy Center, a Chicago area-based organization that monitors transparency by local governments, access to public records, and adherence to sunshine laws. In May the CAC sponsored a four-part series on the rights of high school students.  One session focused on scholastic press rights.

While the Board was mum following the statements, during the new business of the meeting, school board member Jonathan Baum called for the “Evanstonian situation” to be discussed during open session at the next School Board meeting.  After the meeting Baum said he may not be happy about student marijuana use, but he does believe in a free press.

The next school board meeting is scheduled for Oct. 23.

It will be interesting to see if a free press reigns, or if it will be a matter of academic Kristallnacht.

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