Back in November, the Omaha Central High School Register was in a lot of trouble.
Our principal, Dr. Gary Thompson, took offense to several of the stories in the October issue of the student paper. Specifically, he took issue with a story about methamphetamine use by students and another story about a varsity football player who had a fairly lucrative season – despite the fact that he wasn’t eligible for play.
The linebacker had recently been charged with assaulting his ex-girlfriend, hitting her in the face on two separate occasions.
To Thompson, this kind of work was simply deplorable. As he saw it, the Register was hurting Central High School’s reputation. He claimed that the paper was becoming little more than a supermarket tabloid. He said the school couldn’t allow a publication like the Register to keep printing. He said the paper was too negative, and all of the journalism students spent too much time on something that was still only one class out of the day.
Those were his arguments. Had he simply communicated those worries to the staff, we might have listened to the criticism and perhaps even taken some of his advice. But he didn’t do that. Instead, he started making changes that hindered the publishing of the paper. First, he made certain that the Register office be closed, with all students out, by 7 p.m. every day. Then, while the staff was attending a convention in Boston last November, he sent a letter to all journalism parents stating his firm belief that changes would have to be made to the journalism department.
After that, everything was kind of a whirlwind. Meetings were held, first between journalism parents and Thompson, then between Thompson, our adviser Matt Deabler, and a representative for the entire Omaha Public School district.
Luckily for us, Deabler was extremely supportive. I believe he took the attacks on the paper as a personal insult, but he was in a pretty precarious position. As a teacher, he was under the control of the district. But as a journalist, the whole concept of censorship and prior review was disgusting.
He decided that his best option would be to vocalize his displeasure with the recent series of events, but he was careful to follow all of Thompson’s directions to a T, so as not to be let go for insubordination.
Obviously, his stance on the issue worked. He is still the adviser, and the Register is still being printed, exactly as it has for more than a hundred years.
The end of the entire dilemma was a little anticlimactic. After battling with the administration for over two months, going on countless news programs, being featured in dozens of newspapers and following every miniscule new rule that was applied, there was a final meeting between Thompson and the Register staff. Thompson said he had made up his mind not to censor or impose prior review on the Register. In fact, he said that had never even been an option, as he was proud of the Register’s recent success and in no way wanted to hinder what we had started.
He outlined a few rules he hoped the publication would follow (don’t hurt anyone, don’t break the law, etc.). And then that was it. It was over.
Or at least we had moved on.
Since that final meeting was held at the end of December, the Register has printed four papers. The first, the one that was delivered while the hullabaloo was going on, was only 12 pages long with no color whatsoever. It was the logical thing to do at the time; we had no idea what was going to happen to our program, and all of our efforts were going into preserving what we had going, not putting together another first-class publication.
After winter break, we were all a little rested up, and we put out two 24-page, three-section newspapers (the first one even contained a 20-page insert magazine). It was a step up from what we had just released, but still not back up to what we were used to: 40-page, five section newspapers and 32-page magazines.
The past issues have been different than the two we put together at the beginning of the year. All in all, the staff just seems wearied and downtrodden, like we know we aren’t really wanted or appreciated at Central High.
After every issue, Deabler and Thompson have a meeting where they discuss the content of the last paper – specifically, what Thompson thought of it.
I think this and the events of the past few months have led the Register to be a prime example of the “chilling effect” at work. Now that the issue of censorship has been raised, the staff seems to be implementing self-censorship in an attempt to keep the publication going. I can almost say without a doubt that if a spring sports athlete beats up his girlfriend, it will not be reported in the Register.
That is not to say we regret our actions in the past. In fact, I stand firmly behind our decision to run that story. But the chance of losing the Register is just too great, too much of a risk. Unless we are writing stuff of almost Watergate-level, I doubt many of our most controversial stories will ever see any amount of time in print.
The Register still prides itself on hard-hitting news and interesting investigations, though. Our January and February issues feature in-depth looks at race and diversity at Central High, and the school’s dropout rate. The March issue will even include a six-page special section about the effects of ending forced desegregation in Omaha Public Schools.
The Register has changed. Whether it is for better or for worse, I am not sure. All I know is that we will never allow the paper that we love to be muzzled. And if that means swallowing our pride on some issues, than so be it.
The Register is bigger than anyone on it. It will always be at Central High, and hopefully, it will always carry a reputation as one of the most decorated high school newspapers in the nation.
I refuse to be responsible for letting it die.
Matt Wynn is a senior at Omaha Central High School and editor in chief of the Register.