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

Posted by on May 20, 2019 in Blog, Ethical Issues, New Voices, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments


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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Prior review imposes ineffective educational limits on learning, citizenship

Posted by on May 3, 2019 in Blog, Law and Ethics, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments

Words and ideas often become scrambled with prior review

by John Bowen, MJE
Unbelievably, prior review seems to be spreading.

It occurred recently in Illinois, California, Ohio, Texas and numerous additional states. It shows no signs of slowing, despite efforts to pass state legislation to protect student expression.

To read about California review and restraint demands, go here. To read the articles in question go here.

Every scholastic journalism organization has opposed prior review and, hopefully, will continue to do so.

Legally, though, prior review is not unconstitutional although prior restraint – censorship – is in some states, Thus, the best way to fight it is with educational principles and the need for stronger civic engagement.

Arguable points against prior review include:

• It limits student intellectual and societal growth

• It delays or even extinguishes the development of journalistic responsibility

• It shackles critical thinking

• It leads historically to prior restraint which leads to mis- and disinformation

• It has no educational value

Yet, it still continues and spreads.

As journalism teachers we know our students learn more when they make content choices. 

Prior review and restraint do not teach students to produce higher quality journalism or to become more journalistically responsible.

As journalism teachers we know the only way to teach students to take responsibility for their decisions is to train them for that responsibility.

As journalism teachers we know democracy depends on students who understand all voices have a right to be heard and have a voice in their school and community.

It is our responsibility to find and publicize ways to convince those who support prior review why the practice has no place in scholastic journalism.

For our democracy, our educational system and our individual abilities to separate credible information untruths.

To gain traction against prior review, JEA’s Scholastic Press Rights Committee will focus its efforts to provide educational and civic support for advisers, students, parents and administrators so they can best educate their communities.

The resources below represent our initial steps to extend the discussion about the dangers of a practice that historically only led to censorship.


Prior review
What to tell your principal about prior review?

Why avoiding prior review is educationally sound

Dealing with unwanted, forced prior review?

JEA Adviser Code of Ethics

Definitions of prior review, prior restraint

Prior review vs prior restraint

Questions advisers should ask those who want to implement prior review
Why we keep harping about prior review

Understanding the perils of prior review and restraint

Talking points blog and talking points to counter prior review

And much, much more at Scholastic Press Rights Committee

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Arkansas student journalists lose publishing rights, regain them, support from other journalists

Posted by on Dec 9, 2018 in Blog, Legal issues | 0 comments


by Jackie Mink, JEA Emeritus member
A recent challenge in Arkansas left a high school’s newspaper censored and prior review started. With support from other scholastic and professional journalism organizations, the school newspaper has now been allowed to publish.

I thought of a line in my favorite book “To Kill a Mockingbird”recently. It was in the courtroom scene when Atticus Finch says to a witness,“You ran to the house, you ran to the window, you ran inside, you ran to Mayella, you ran for Mr. Tate. Did you in all this running, run for a doctor?” As well as wondering why there was no medical attention, Atticus was probably wondering if the real truth may have been discovered if the doctor had been called.

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Censorship leads to fake news

Posted by on Oct 29, 2018 in Blog, Law and Ethics, Quick Tips, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments


Prior-review/censor guideline /policy

Journalists often are considered mirrors on society. As such, journalism should reflect the community in which it is produced. In order to also maintain their watchdog function, journalists must also be able to act as candles that illuminate and challenge a community’s values and preconceptions.

Monitoring the status quo and the powers that be is one way journalists can both reflect and challenge their communities. This journalistic practice helps maintain the free and accurate flow of information.

Additionally, student media should be independent from their school’s public relations arm. The purpose of student media is to report school and community issues and events. Consequently, the purpose of student media is not to protect the image of the school or district.

These roles are premised on the idea that student media can operate in an independent manner.

JEA strongly rejects both prior review and restraint as tools in the education process and agrees with other national journalism education groups that no valid educational justification exists for prior review of scholastic media.

Prior review and prior restraint of student media content by school officials are weapons in the arsenal of censorship. Not only do they limit student learning and application, but they also restrict student critical thinking and analysis.

This would be included in the policy portion.


Social media post/question:How does self-censorship impact what students cover?

Stance: Students should create a clear guideline for stemming the tide of self-censorship.

Reasoning/suggestions: Students are often self-censoring important content — especially if they have been censored previously.

When students self-censor topics journalistically ethical and legal to cover, they are in essence forwarding the concept of fake news. If students are afraid to cover topics of importance to them, they are not creating a true open forum for student discussion and are not functioning as a journalist.


SPLC Active Voices

Lesson: Censorship=Fake news

Self Censorship links from SPLC

JEA prior review definition

Sarah Nichol’s blog from 2009

Self-censorship is scariest of all

Posted by JBowen   Oct 30, 2009 in Law and Ethics, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching| 0 comments

All week I’ve heard plans for creepy costume parties, haunted house visits and horror film marathons. But as Halloween weekend approaches, there’s something much scarier on my mind.

It’s scary how many media staffs and their advisers are under fire right now for doing exactly what they set out to do: report on issues of impact and interest to their students. The current situation at Timberland High School in Wentzville, Mo. is just one example of many. Stories of little consequence, such as the homecoming court or club happenings, rarely draw attention. But the ones that matter — the ones that have potential to help students — come under fire at an alarming rate, despite thorough research, credible sources and top-notch student reporting.

It’s scary when kids grapple with these big issues and how to cover them well. But it’s even scarier when they don’t. Good journalism — and the whole part about critical thinking, student leadership and free expression — stops when kids decide to censor themselves.

All too often I hear my kids during staff brainstorming sessions say things like, “People would freak out if we covered that,” or “[Insert administrator names] would give us a really hard time if we did that.” Despite frequent discussion of media law and a dissection of the ed code, I still hear, “We can’t do that, can we?”

In most cases, they can. And in many cases, they should. It’s easy to see why kids might be inclined to shy away from the good stories, the real stories. After all, many advisers share updates in class of programs facing censorship and use these as teachable moments. We read the controversial articles, discuss the situations and follow the stories over an extended period of time. Kids are interested and engage in meaningful discussion, but I realized lately that they might not be taking away the message we think we’re sending. Do our students come away inspired and empowered, or are they afraid of censorship, administrative retaliation or the risk of losing a beloved adviser?

Scary possibilities, to be sure.

We can combat self-censorship with a few simple strategies:

(1) Continue to expose students to outstanding journalism, both from students and from the pros. Read it, discuss it, analyze it. Nothing beats an important story done well.

(2) When students begin to talk themselves out of a sensitive story topic, encourage them to revisit your mission statement and/or editorial policies. Teach students to weigh the options: how many readers might be helped or touched by this story? What’s the potential for good here? How far might this story reach?

(3) Get outside your school bubble. You know your school community, yes, but have you looked at how other student media have covered similar stories? Are others in your city, state, region affected by the same topics? Is there an opportunity to learn from the experience of others? Collaborate?

(4) Point to a wide variety of resources so students have support. When students feel confident in their research and reporting skills, they’re confident tackling bigger stories. Establish a team-oriented staff culture so that students have peers willing to help with research and interviewing. Good student journalists know how much work is involved in getting a story right; they might talk themselves out of tackling the topic because they know a sensitive story often involves extra effort. Again, work together.

(5) Make sure students understand how to utilize expert assistance from the SPLCand feel comfortable doing so. Consider role-playing sample scenarios in class. Encourage student editors to create a plan in the event that a situation arises. It’s like a fire drill — we don’t expect to be in a fire but we practice the drill and know how to call 911 if we need to. Then we’re free to go about our daily lives and focus on what matters.

If staffers have a plan in place, covering a potentially controversial subject doesn’t seem so scary.

Sarah Nichols, MJE



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What to tell your principal about Prior Review? QT 62

Posted by on Apr 23, 2018 in Blog, Ethical Issues, Legal issues, Quick Tips, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments


Quick Hits: Student First Amendment Rights

The bad news is that administrators may legally ask to see stories before they are printed or aired, but prior review leaves them in an awkward situation, because of the good news below.

The good news is that they generally cannot ask students to change anything or spike the story. That would be prior restraint, allowed legally only under narrow conditions.*

Prior Review is a bad idea for both students and the school. But how do you convince the administrations?

You have two strong arguments against prior review. The first is a legal argument, the second is a pedagogical one.

First, when administrators review student publications prior to publishing, they and the school district become responsible for its content and policies. These three cases show the protection schools enjoy when they allow student control of student media:

  1. Because Lexington High School students made all the editorial, business and staffing decisions for both the LHS Yearbook and the school paper, a suit brought against the district failed. The adults were sued because the student leaders of the paper had refused to run two ads. The school’s superintendent, principal, the two publication advisers and the five school members of the school committee escaped unharmed from the suit that alleged they were violating the First and Fourteenth amendments when the school publications refused the ads. (Yeo v. Town of Lexington (1997) in the First Circuit Court of Appeals)
  2. Because the students, not the school district, decided which senior portraits to allow in the Londonderry High School yearbook, the district was protected from successful suit for First Amendment violation when the students rejected a senior portrait with a shotgun. The judge found that it was not the school district that rejected the photo. It was the student yearbook editors. “The state has not, it seems, suppressed Blake’s speech. His fellow students have done so.” (Douglass v. Londonderry School District (2005) in the U.S. District Court for New Hampshire.) 
  3. Because the students of Roosevelt High School in Seattle practiced strong journalism and controlled the content of their student media, a lower court ruled in favor of the Seattle Public Schools and against slumlords suing the district for libel following an article in The Roosevelt News, “Sisley Slums Cause Controversy: Developers and neighborhood clash over land use.”  The lower court ruled that if what the students write is true, it is not libel, and where the students make the content decisions, the school district is protected from successful suit. (Sisley v. Seattle School District (2011 in the Court of Appeals of Washington (state), Division 1)

Second, when administrators exercise prior review, students lose the opportunity to develop skill crucial to democracy, including the ability to recognize sound journalism and fake news. When students choose the content of their publications to please—or at least “get past”—administrators, they are denied the opportunity to apply what they learn in class about news values, ethics and press law.

In contrast, students who control the content of their publication regularly consider their audience’s right to know and individuals’ right to privacy. They judge the strength and reliability of sources. They strive to make their reporting fair and accurate. They come to cherish their audience’s trust and they admit mistakes, issue corrections and retractions, and live with the consequences. They are prepared to be responsible citizens as intelligent consumers of media.

There is no evidence that prior review by administration improves learning in any way.















*In states under the Tinker standard, an administrator could restrain stories that pose a clear and present danger of inciting students to commit crimes on school premises or violate lawful school regulations, or substantially disrupt the orderly operation of the school. The administrator could also restrain stories that contain obscenity or slander/libel.


In the states that remain under Hazelwood, the administrator would need a “legitimate pedagogical concern.”



QuickHits So what does Hazelwood actually allow administrators to do?

QuickHits The Perks of Being a Wallflower: How a School District Escaped a Lawsuit by Fostering an Independent Student Press.  Yeo v. Town of Lexington (1997) in the First Circuit Court of Appeals

Quickhits More Perks of Being a Wallflower: How two other School District Escaped Lawsuits by Fostering an Independent Student Press. Douglass v. Londonderry School District (2005) and Sisley v. Seattle School District (2011)











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