High School Confidential  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June 2002

High School Confidential   

In their efforts to suppress negative news, administrators are increasingly apt these days to censor student newspapers. And the young journalists are fighting back.

By Jill Rosen
Jill Rosen is AJR's assistant managing editor     


Katy Dean, science buff and student journalist, knew this could be good. Though fellow reporters at Utica High School had passed on it, a story about a lawsuit against the district lit Dean's fuse. People who live near the district bus garage alleged that diesel fumes from revving buses were making them sick. One man said unrelenting exhaust gave him throat and lung cancer.

"I'm definitely doing this," the 16-year-old junior said to herself--with the emphasis on definitely. "I don't think anyone else realized how much this could affect our community." So Dean and Dan Butts got on the case, spending weeks phoning officials in the suburban Detroit district, digging for chemical information through the Environmental Protection Agency and eventually knocking on the door of the family that was suing. As the students were leaving after an interview that lasted a few hours, the wife of the sick man asked, "Are they really going to let you run this?" Dean didn't even think about it. No one had ever censored the Arrow. "Oh," she said with the breezy sureness only a 16-year-old who has never been let down could have, "they have to let us."

A couple of weeks later in March, after her principal demanded the story be pulled from the front page, Dean merely said, with the disgust only a 16-year-old who has been let down can muster, "Uh, I guess I was wrong on that one."

More than 30 years of shepherding student publications and teaching high-school kids English and journalism have left Gloria Olman, adviser to the Arrow, with a crisp yet patient voice and an easy, knowing laugh. With the exception of a few timeouts to have children, Olman has been up to her ears in high-school newsprint since the early 1960s. The staffs under her watch have brought Utica High hundreds of awards, while Olman's own shelf is heavy with honors, including 1992's Dow Jones Newspaper Fund National High School Journalism Teacher of the Year and a place in the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame. Her write-up by the Hall of Fame says, "Gloria Olman is scholastic journalism."

When Olman joined the Arrow in 1977, she had her work cut out for her. "It was not a solid journalism program," she says. "They were reporting, you know, fluff, restaurant reviews, light things. It wasn't serious journalism." And serious was all she would settle for. "As a journalist, I wanted to train my students for their roles as reporters and as consumers of media in society," she says. "We would cover issues, all sides of the story, and they would dig."

Through the years they certainly dug, into issues as thorny as teens getting pregnant and having abortions, kids taking drugs. These stories would now and again make administrators wince, Olman says, but until this March, they never--not once--said a topic was too hot to touch. No one ever told her not to put a story in the paper.

"I was shocked, OK? I was stunned," Olman says, recalling how the principal called her to the office to say, "I'm directing you not to print this." And she said, "You are censoring us." He repeated, "I am directing you not to print it."

The kids, angry and upset, thought she was kidding. "I am not," she said. "I am his employee and I follow orders." "But Mrs. O," they said, "we should print it anyway. You always taught us to stand up."

Though this was happening within hours of press time, the Arrow staff pulled the story from the front page. Then, where an editorial saying the district should move the bus garage would have appeared, the students quickly wrote a piece on censorship. In place of an accompanying cartoon went a black box stamped in white lettering: "Censored."

Yanked newspaper stories, disappointed student journalists and resolute administrators are an unfortunately common part of the high-school experience. Censorship occurs so consistently, so ubiquitously that it's almost clichéd, no more eyebrow-raising than the cafeteria serving mystery meat or a nerd getting books smacked out of his arms in the hallway. And those are only the cases where conflict has erupted. How many student papers don't even try to print controversial topics because they know they can't, where it's all pep rallies and teacher profiles all the time?

Though censoring of student content probably started about the time when cavekids first scribbled something on the wall that ticked off tribal elders, what's new is the frequency with which it's occurring and, more interestingly, how often students are contesting it. In 2000, the Student Press Law Center logged 518 calls for help with censorship from high schools. The advocacy group reports that's up 41 percent from the year before--a year that also broke a record. The number of calls has increased every year for six years, and when the center counts again this year, it expects the trend to continue.

Schools can be tense in these post-Columbine years, as those in the education world call the times since the spring of 1999, when two troubled students stormed Colorado's Columbine High School, killing a teacher and 12 students before turning the guns on themselves. There's the basic fear of anything like that happening again, compounded by increasingly tight education budgets and increasingly rigorous standards to test both students and teachers. The more pressure administrators feel, the less edgy journalism they're willing to tolerate, speculates Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

"They feel less able to allow controversy and criticism," he says in his Arlington, Virginia, office, messy with paper evidence of student battles past and ongoing. "And they're less likely to tolerate dissent and debate.... They really have to run their operations like generals."

Administrators with a militaristic bent have no better weapon in their arsenal than the Supreme Court's 1988 decision in Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier. Up until then, papers operated under the premise that a student's right to free speech should only be limited in cases where it could disrupt school or invade the rights of others. The Supreme Court reached that conclusion in 1969's Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District, a case of students suspended for wearing black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. Hazelwood, however, set more limits on expression, particularly at papers deemed not "forums for public expression," meaning that students don't typically make content decisions. The court found administrators could censor a St. Louis student paper that wanted to run articles about teen pregnancy and the effects of divorce. The court's definition of when such intervention is allowed is so hazy that school officials can easily make cases to squash challenging stories or any copy that otherwise rocks the boat.

Consider:

•In March, the principal at Illinois' Huntley High School confiscated an issue of the Tribe that included stories about students who've suffered depression, attempted suicide and dropped out of school. The Tribe got the idea for the piece after more than 400 worried parents attended a January meeting about those problems. The principal told the Chicago Tribune it wasn't the content that bothered him, but rather the paper's inclusion of anonymous sources and former students.

• In February the principal at Cheyenne, Wyoming's East High School wouldn't allow the Thunderbolt staff to run a story about debate team members being arrested for vandalizing police cars. The principal said the students didn't need further embarrassment.

• Tampa's Plant High School paper, Pep O' Plant, planned a column in March endorsing condom availability at the prom. Because the school's curriculum promotes abstinence, officials stopped distribution of the paper, considered reprinting several pages, but in the end let the column, headlined "Face It; Sex Happens," run.

• When reporters at Saluda, Virginia's Middlesex High School put together a safe-sex spread for the Valentine's Day issue, the principal refused to let it run in the Big Blue Review, which is circulated as an insert in the local paper. When the Review tried a spread on censorship the following month, the principal at first nixed that too, although it eventually ran.

Rebecca Gates, Middlesex High's principal and a 26-year educator, says she simply cannot allow just anything to go into a school paper that's circulated to the community where much younger kids could see it. As she puts it, her superintendent has a daughter in middle school and he certainly wasn't comfortable with her seeing a piece on contraceptives. District policy grants her this authority, decreeing Gates the "final editor."

"We work very, very hard to build a positive image of this high school in this community," Gates says, recalling a recent issue of the paper that included a story about drug use at the school. "Now the community feels the school's just full of drugs. There are a lot of retired folks around here who look forward to the paper coming out so they can get the dirt on the high school. Those are their words – the dirt."

Flag-waver for student press rights Tom Eveslage teaches journalism ethics and law at Temple University. But back in the day he did time teaching English and advising a high-school paper in Minnesota. His flag was out in earnest earlier this year when education officials in Pennsylvania, a rare state where the burden is on administrators in questions of student speech, wanted to "streamline" the state code, essentially removing much of the protection student journalists work under.

Though the code changes were back-burnered, Eveslage worries about the message this sort of thing sends young journalists, the kids who he thinks are, more often than not, the best and the brightest. "A lot of people think what they're doing is just Mickey Mouse stuff, they're just playing around," Eveslage says. "But more and more dedicated advisers with sharp kids are really doing impressive things. These are the ones I don't think we want to step on."

Goodman from the Press Law Center says, "You don't want to teach them in their formative years, 'Oh, always be worried about what the powers that be will do if you print that.' "

This spring in Little Rock's bedroom community of Bryant, Margaret Sorrows, adviser to Bryant High School's Prospective, began walking a fragile line between pleasing her boss and standing up for what she believed were her students' First Amendment rights.

Last fall a reporter she considers one of her best--and her paper has snagged the state press association's top award for five years straight--pitched an idea for a three-part series on discrimination. Installment by installment, she'd tackle race issues, then religious topics, and then wrap up with sexual orientation. When the first package was ready to run in November, Sorrows let the principal see it to make sure he was OK with the sensitive material, which included racial slurs. She wasn't asking his permission but rather giving him a heads-up, a courtesy call. Principal Danny Spadoni was fine with it, as he was with the next piece on religion.

Not so part three. As the reporter was gathering sources, students, faculty and parents besieged the principal's office with complaints that the paper was singling kids out, targeting them as gay. To get sources, the reporter typed out questions, sealed them in envelopes with students' names on them, and asked teachers to pass them out before class. This is how the Prospective does most of its reporting because reporters aren't allowed to interview on class time – only before school, at lunch, or after school. Usually this is not a problem. This time, kids who got envelopes worried other students would assume they were homosexuals.

Spadoni collected the surveys and put the kibosh on the final article. Not long after, he presented Sorrows with new rules for the newspaper, rules that if she didn't abide by, she could lose her job. Highlights of The New Deal: Spadoni would see all story ideas and questions reporters planned to ask and he would preview the paper 48 hours before it went to press. No matter that this conflicted with the school's policy that the principal is not part of editorial decisions unless the editor and the adviser disagree and request a judgment call. The rules were scrapped after two issues.

Spadoni, who's been a principal for 24 years, says he had no choice but to step in. One student who got a survey came to him in tears, he says, while another was thrown out of the house after her parents saw the survey and assumed she was gay. The same policy that keeps him away from editorial decisions, he says, also states that the paper is not to disrupt the educational environment or invade people's privacy. "I'm here to keep everyone safe and protected from being harassed," he says. "Imagine sitting in an English class and all of a sudden, bang, everybody thinks you're a homosexual. No one has a right to subject you to that."

Spadoni says the current staff of the Prospective sacrifices propriety in the name of winning awards. The same student who was doing the discrimination series won an award this year for a story headlined, "My Cup Runneth Over." "Can you guess what that was about?" he dryly asks. "Going shopping for a double-D bra. We're in the Bible Belt here. Talk about getting phone calls."

So, Spadoni is tightening the reins. "I know what censorship is. I'm not going to try to censor," he says. "I'm just going to make sure we do what's appropriate."

Despite Spadoni's concerns, Sorrows is sticking with the district rules already on record: No prior review. "I'm willing to support my students. These aren't my First Amendment rights," she says, "these are the students'."

Embattled high-school journalists around the country would envy the paper/school relationship at Lakewood High School in Lakewood, Ohio. At the award-slathered Times, it's a veritable lovefest between the kids, longtime adviser John Bowen and principal Vincent Barra. That's not to say that the paper doesn't question Barra and the administration. As Bowen puts it, "They will report whatever they think is of interest to students."

For instance, the Times recently did a story on the possibility of teaching creationism. Another questioned the school's policy of using Social Security numbers as Internet log-ons when hacking is so common. Still another reported on the football coach's son, a member of the team, who was caught with beer but still allowed to play. The paper, which comes out once a month, used the incident to get into a bigger piece about athletic code enforcement. The story won an award – not a student award, but the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists' second place honor for sports coverage. It beat out professional papers. "That," Bowen says, "is what kids can do when given the chance to be journalists."

Barra says the student body trusts and enjoys the paper because it covers issues that matter to them. "I don't want [the paper] to be seen only as a PR vehicle for the school where nothing but achievements are covered. This gives them a reason to think and look at things critically.... You can't teach kids about the First Amendment, then deny them their First Amendment rights--that's inconsistent, and they can see through that."

But a hard-driving high-school press isn't usually the stuff authority figures smile upon. Goodman of the Student Press Law Center says it's often the best student journalism that gets censored. If it pushes buttons, if it challenges authority, if it highlights the unsavory truths about life at school, it's often a matter of time before someone wants to put a lid on it. Administrators act more like corporate CEOs than lead educators, Goodman says. "First and foremost is image, everything else be damned. [Papers] can cause lots of headaches for a lot of people, but that's why they're there, to encourage debate, discussion and thinking."

William Wakefield, principal of Indianapolis' Plainfield High School, was likely reaching for the Excedrin after a lambasting by Indianapolis Star editorial writers in March. When kids on a senior prank decided to jump into the school pool in the middle of the day with their clothes on, Jason Pearce, editor of the school's Quaker Shaker, jumped himself – at the chance to photograph it as a news event. Wakefield suspended everyone found at the pool, Pearce included, though he was only shooting the action from the sidelines. "We strenuously object to the sanctions imposed on [Pearce] whose on-the-scene photographs would have earned him praise had he been working at this or any other newspaper," the Star editorial read.

Wakefield, who says he would never censor the paper, calls this nothing more than a case of kids being in an unauthorized place--the pranksters, the journalist, all of them. "It was dark, the room wasn't being used, you couldn't see who was in the pool; they could have jumped on each other," he says. Plus, he says the presence of someone with a camera just made the pranksters act that much sillier. "Just because they're in a journalism class, they think they're the Washington Post – I don't agree with this."

The soft-spoken, 17-year-old Pearce, much to the dismay of his Quaker Shaker adviser, didn't fight Wakefield's ruling after school officials knocked his punishment down from five days to three and a paper on censorship. Had he not accepted the suspension deal, he would have missed a choir competition that weekend. Pearce balanced the choir gig on one hand and a journalism rights showdown on the other, and the singing won. He liked the attention, though, while it lasted. "We were all talking about it," he says, "Was it right? Was it wrong? Was it infringing on my student press rights, or uh, whatever?"

Pearce didn't fight his administration's judgment. Maybe with enough spit and fire, the endorsement of local media and a dollop of community outrage, he could have had his punishment stricken. Or maybe not. Either way, his was not exactly the censorship case to mold a journalism martyr.

The Student Press Law Center is the only organization in the country--and director Goodman believes, the world--that exists solely to defend the First Amendment rights of student journalists. When student journalism is under the gun, the center doesn't quibble about quality. Be it Pearce's picture or the high-school equivalent of Watergate, if a school is quashing expression, the center opens its arms to the silenced. "Students can say what they want," Goodman says, "even if they say a stupid and an offensive thing."

Besides educating people about their rights and being an outspoken advocate for them, the center also hooks students up with attorneys prepared to take on their cases pro bono. About 150 lawyers are in the network nationwide.

Katy Dean, back in Utica, Michigan, plans to fight. She and the Arrow have enlisted the center, and not only do attorneys think there's a case, they think it's the one-in-a-million that could set precedent.

"This is the best case I have seen post-Hazelwood," says Goodman. Not only has the Arrow been, unquestionably, a public forum for 25 years, he says, but the story about the bus garage lawsuit was evenhanded and well-reported. "It's as strong as any case we'll ever find."

Utica High's principal, Richard Machesky, declined to comment for this story, though he wrote in a letter to the Arrow staff, "In a professional setting, the editor...is obligated to make sure that stories that appear in the paper are both complete and accurate. In the case of a student newspaper, that responsibility falls to the journalism adviser. Again, at a professional newspaper, if the editor has failed to catch errors and omissions, the task becomes the publisher's responsibility. In the case of the Arrow, the school principal acts as the newspaper's publisher and the appropriate action was taken."

Machesky went on to fault the story's use of pseudonyms for "no appropriate reasons," hearsay, unidentified sources and "scant scientific evidence." All arguably legitimate points. But Gloria Olman, the adviser, says, "I felt it was well-written and accurate to the best of our ability."

Olman, who says "the kids are now carrying this battle on their own," is supportive, even while she steps aside. For more than 30 years she's taught kids what the First Amendment entitled them to. Now is hardly the time to change her message. "If not," she says, "how do I look my former students in the eyes? How do I look myself in the mirror?"

Dean heard all of Olman's lessons and bought in. If a reporter had all the facts, she thought that was enough. And she saw "complete freedom of the press" as something nonnegotiable, set in stone. Now, "I realize it's all politics," she says. And she's thinking about her future. Earlier this year, her list of career maybes might have included being a journalist. Now, she's got other ideas. "This whole thing," she says, "has made me want to be a First Amendment attorney."

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