Given the increasing knowledge of scholastic press rights among students and advisers, it is almost hard to believe high school administrators can have such differing views on the purpose of the student newspaper and their own level of involvement with the production of the newspaper.
Unfortunately, the primary audience for First Amendment education in the scholastic press is students and advisers.
“We can preach all we want at the Journalism Educator’s Association or the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, but we are just preaching to the choir,” said Mike Hiestand of the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), a non-profit organization dedicated to educating students about their First Amendment rights.
It may be the high school administrators who need to hear the sermon the most. While it is crucial to continue informing newspaper advisers and student journalists of their First Amendment rights in light of Supreme Court decisions and legislative actions, it is a grave mistake to overlook those who are often behind the censorship.
But administrators’ lack of knowledge is not all for lack of trying. Journalism educators who have attempted seminars and workshops with administrators about student rights and responsibilities have found unenthusiastic audiences, if any audience at all. Candace Perkins-Bowen, scholastic media program coordinator at Kent State University, had planned a workshop for principals during her High School Newspaper Institute this summer. Of the 35 principals invited for the expense-paid seminar, only six showed any interest.
“We decided that wasn’t ‘critical mass’ enough to devote the expense, so we are just sending them information,” Perkins-Bowen said. She noted that JEA also has attempted to host workshops for administrators, but they have been sparsely attended as well.
Jay P. Goldman, a former education reporter who now edits The School Administrator, a monthly magazine, said school law issues – particularly student rights – are issues that administrators are not concerned enough about.
“I don’t think anyone would quibble with the fact that administrators need more training,” Goldman said. “But it is easy to see why administrators would not flock to these sessions. They have so many demands and there is such intense pressure on performance that they get caught up in test mania and allow other things to slide by.”
Goldman said part of the problem is the perception that mainstream media are unfair in education news coverage, which makes administrators fearful of a free student press. “I don’t agree with it, but I understand it,” he said.
Alan Weintraub, dean at Westport High School in Massachusetts, is doing his part to convince fellow administrators not to be afraid of the student newspaper but rather to embrace its potential as a magnifying glass into students’ lives – a must for high school educators.
“After reading an interview with a teenage alcoholic, a girl who has recently had an abortion, a boy who has tried to commit suicide, or a student who works 40 hours a week and doesn’t get home before 11 p.m.,” he said, “it is difficult for any of us to ignore that students have complicated lives that have a direct effect on their ability to function in the classroom.”
Westport High’s student newspaper, Villager, reported in a recent issue a survey it had done on student drinking. Though the total numbers were not so shocking to the administration – which thought it had a handle on the alcohol problems of its students – the amount of drinking among individual students was staggering. Weintraub noted that some students responded that they could not get through the day without a drink.
“At Westport High School we can no longer pretend we don’t have an alcohol problem,” he said. “Our high school newspaper has seen to that.”
In the March 2001 issue of Principal Leadership, Weintraub and Harry Proudfoot, Westport’s newspaper adviser, pleaded with their colleagues to grant the fullest freedom of expression to school newspapers.
“The students [of the Villager staff] will tell you they win awards not because they set out to win them but because they are doing the job of good journalists anywhere: communicating factual information to people in ways that will help them live better lives,” Proudfoot said. “They will tell you they are successful in that pursuit because they have been given the tools they need to succeed and the freedom they need to pursue their mission.
“And they will tell you that any school can have this kind of newspaper if they have the courage to give students ownership of their newspaper.”
At Hall High School in Connecticut, it was actually the principal who went to bat for the student newspaper when the staff wanted to do a story on a science teacher being investigated for improprieties while giving a standardized aptitude test. The school board attorney said the newspaper could do nothing. If Elaine Bessette – a high school newspaper adviser before going into administration – had not pushed the issue, the staff would have been out of luck.
Student editor Miro Kazakoff, now a computer science and English double major at Georgetown University, believed the student publication, Hall Highlights, was obligated to report on the situation. “The principal actually came to our defense when the (school board’s) lawyer told us we could not print anything,” Kazakoff said. “I was sweating terribly. Half of me was wondering how we would get back the current article since the paper was at the printer; half of me was wondering what we would print there instead.”
Though Bessette was unable to convince the attorneys that the student newspaper deserved professional press status when it came to covering the investigation, the paper was allowed to do a story on the gag order. Bessette even gained school board approval for the high school students to do a report once the local newspaper broke the story.
“Personally, I don’t think the principal should have any prior review,” she said. “If a story is controversial but not illegal, the principal could walk the staff through the possible outcomes so they can decide how to handle it. If the article is critical, it is critical. Tough.”
Bessette, currently principal at Greenwhich High School, admittedly falls on the liberal side of the spectrum when it comes to administrative views of student rights. At the other end of the spectrum is Pete McMurray, principal of Itawamba (Miss.) High School. He confiscated the school’s newspapers when he saw a political cartoon depicting an inept school board.
“I wouldn’t want anything derogatory in our paper,” said McMurray, who spent two years in the U.S. Marines before beginning a 24-year career in secondary education. “The school newspaper is not an arena for free expression. For those students who are serious about journalism, they can do that at the next level.”
Part of the difficulty for administrators is the inherent subjectivity of the standards put forth in the Supreme Court’s landmark Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier decision. The 1998 decision affects most current high school newsroom environments and grants administrators editorial control of student publications as long as their actions are “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” What is considered reasonable and/or legitimate is left to one’s own interpretation, however, and is likely to be vastly different between students and administrators.
“The Supreme Court has said since principals are government agents, they have to give a reason for censorship,” said Mark Goodman, executive director of the SPLC. “Hazelwood lowered that standard and said if censorship is merely reasonable, then it is constitutional. The problem is that it is completely subjective what constitutes ‘reasonable.’”
Gene Reynolds, who was principal of Hazelwood East High School in 1988 and whose actions led to the lawsuit, claims the Supreme Court decision was not meant to be a mandate for administrative censorship.
“The Hazelwood case did not give us more rights to censor student newspapers, but it did give us more authority,” Reynolds told the American Society of Newspaper Editors in March.
Scott Mutchie, superintendent in Clarkston, Wash., is opposed to the Hazelwood standard and remains partial to the First Amendment.
“I don’t agree with the Supreme Court on that one,” Mutchie said. “As an administrator, I had to watch carefully that administrators did not react to the way students felt. As soon as you say, ‘you can’t print that’ because you don’t like it, you are obstructing their freedom of speech.”
Chris Richardson, former superintendent of the North Platte School District in Nebraska, supports the Hazelwood standard but is quick to admit it is a difficult one for administrators to figure out and easy to abuse.
“Absolutely it is abused,” Richardson said. “With the broad way Hazelwood is written, an administrator could have lots of objections with something that is negative toward the administration or the school and decide to take it out or place a gag order on the paper.”
That is why Richardson is among a growing constituency of high school journalism advocates who are recognizing a need to pull administrators into the journalism education mix: talking to student journalists about responsibilities that come with rights, teaching advisers the standards of solid reporting and good ethics, and of course, working with administrators on “reasonable” involvement in the student press.
“I’ve just got to believe the more educated people are about the current case law and the First Amendment, that will go the longest way in giving our students rights,” Richardson said. “Good people with the right education will make good decisions.”
A NEW APPROACH
Education as the key to increased student rights was the impetus for the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Schools program, which is still being developed. Working with the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, the Freedom Forum will select 10 schools this fall to become “model schools” where the principles of the First Amendment are exercised throughout the curriculum.
“We are saying to the United States and to all schools that if we want freedom, we have to have laboratories of freedom; we have to be serious,” said Charles Haynes, the visionary behind the First Amendment Schools project. “The prison model is just not the way.”
Haynes, a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center, has been working with schools on religious liberty issues. During recent conversations with ASCD about partnering to expand the efforts, Haynes decided it made more sense to broaden the proposal to all First Amendment freedoms. The idea of a model First Amendment school aimed at reaching all constituents – students, teachers and administrators – seemed the best way to begin changing the culture of expression oppression.
“We believe our timing on this is right,” Haynes said. “Ignorance of what is and is not permissible runs deep.”
The Freedom Forum recently conducted a survey of teachers and administrators on their views of student rights and responsibilities of the First Amendment. When administrators were asked to name which freedoms were guaranteed in the First Amendment, 77 percent named free speech but only 19 percent named free press and 21 percent said freedom of religion. Four percent thought the right to bear arms was part of the First Amendment. Forty-eight percent of administrators disagreed strongly when asked if high school students should be allowed to report controversial issues in the newspaper without approval from school authorities.
“Teacher and administrator education on the First Amendment is sorely lacking,” Haynes said. “Most administrators go into public schools with little or no background on law. But our thinking is that if we give students the opportunity to be responsible, we’ll have a better result.”
Laurie Lattimore recently received her Ph.D. and will work as assistant professor of journalism at Mercer University this fall.