Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Student Newspaper 1st Amendment Rights

I remember my first lesson in a real life, honest-to-God free speech issue. It was 1980. A friend of mine was on the school newspaper staff & she wrote a story about a school safety violation. The story was about the fire extinguishers & how they were blocked from access in the cafeteria by something-er-nuther & so where several in the kitchen area. She went around the school & found that many of the extinguishers were not properly charged. That is a fire code violation. She did the research. She wrote the story. It got published.

And you would have thought she had grown horns, sprouted a tail & carried a pitchfork.

The papers went on sale in the cafeteria but that day the sale lasted a grand total of 5 minutes, 37 seconds, before the sale was stopped, all papers confiscated, & she was sitting in the Principal's office. She & the faculty advisor claimed it was a legitimate story. The school Admin didn't see it that way.

I didn't know it then but what had happened that day was a violation of the law regarding students' free speech & the student press, per a landmark 1969 Supreme Court ruling. Students had the right to print news articles without being censored.

Then came the more conservative 80s & another case came to the Supreme Court regarding the same issue. Administrators at Hazelwood East High School, just outside St. Louis, objected to a couple of stories about --- gasp! --- problems that teens face in the real world: teen pregnancy & the effects of divorce on children. Evidently the Hazelwood administration thought they lived in Lake Woebegone & didn't like those stories that discuss the warts & all. Amazingly, the Supreme Court ruled administrators did have the right to censure student newspaper content.

In come the "expert teachers" that schools love to hire: teachers that are trained in the legal aspects of student speech & student newspapers. Looks good on the schools Improvement Plan, you know.

Teachers like Barb Thill of Stevenson High School outside Chicago. Thill was recruited to the school expressly for her achievements with student newspapers. And she excelled too winning two National Scholastic Press Association Pacemaker Awards, the highest honor a school newspaper can earn.

That is until a few months ago when the student newspaper featured a story about the teenage practice of “hooking up.” The newspaper staff claimed they wrote it to enlighten parents about what teens were doing & encourage some open, honest discussion about sex. Apparently, the school administration up there thinks they live in Pleasantville & demanded all new articles be first reviewed by the principals. Thill refused. She was then stripped of her journalism classes teh next year & subsequently resigned. (Thill article.)

There there is Linda Kane, who had been the newspaper adviser ay Naperville Central, also outside Chicago, for 20 years & through the years won nine National Scholastic Press Association Pacemaker Awards. She was fired after refusing to submit to dictates of the administration that violated Student Press Law Center guidelines that Kane and her staff adhered to.

In Kane's case, the story that ticked off the administration was about teen drug use. The story contained some profanity, perfectly allowable under the guidelines if it "is in a direct quote if the words are imperative to the content or meaning of that quote." Only on Leave It to Beaver is there no profanity in school hallways, so it is not like the students have virgin ears. It's on the TV & music. It's in books. But when part of a quote in a newspaper article it is not allowed? Let's get real.

School admin says that was too real. Kane is no longer allowed to teach journalism class. (Kane article.)

A small number of states have passed laws protecting students & advisers from administrative retaliation for unfavorable newspaper content, including CA, ARK, MA, CO, IA, KS, & MA. Some others states, WA, CT & KY, are considering similar legislation.

Now this would be a worthy debate to have in the GA General Assembly but somehow I really doubt the 1st Amendment will get much play.

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