WE live in a remarkable country. After a long and costly legal battle the Supreme Court, the highest and most majestic court in the land, has ruled on the rights of teen-age journalists on a high school newspaper in suburban St. Louis. That is a reassuring reminder of how seriously Americans take freedom of speech. I can think of a dozen countries where the issue would be treated with far less gravity. In the days since the court handed down its majority decision, there has been a fair amount of discussion and commentary. Some journalism educators and high school journalists say the ruling will give school officials encouragement to censor school newspapers, cutting back on issue-oriented reporting. In other schools, the ruling has been shrugged off, with teachers and students saying there has not been much of a problem in the past, and they do not perceive one emerging in the future.
In essence, the court decided that a high school principal does have the right to tone down, or hold out, content his students have prepared for publication in the school newspaper.
No American, and particularly those of us with long years in journalism, can be happy about a ruling that at first glance appears to limit freedom of expression. But those of us who are journalists know that, though we would go to the wall in defense of the First Amendment, the final content of newspapers is determined by the editors, and sometimes publishers, who hold ultimate professional authority.
Reporters, being a rambunctious lot, often bridle under such direction. There are lively newsroom fights over what should be left in and what should be taken out. The editor wins. The extreme recourse for a reporter is to quit, or to start a newspaper of his own.
In the St. Louis case, the principal of the high school involved objected to two articles. One contained interviews with three unnamed girls who had become pregnant. The other was a discussion of divorce, quoting a student's criticism of her father, and identifying her by name. In each case, the principal decided that the privacy of individuals would have been invaded by publication and that the subject matter was too mature for younger students. He held the stories out.
I am not sure I would have made the same editorial decision as that high school principal in Hazelwood, Mo. There are ways of rescuing stories, and preserving the significance of the issues raised, without being offensive or intrusive, and maybe some careful editing could have achieved that.
But I agree with the Supreme Court ruling, and I defend the principal's right to make those editorial decisions as the ultimate editorial authority on a paper paid for by the school, run as an integral part of the journalism course, and clearly a school activity.
Welcome, high school journalism students, to the real world.
This is a sensitive area. We do not want censorship by heavy-handed school authorities. But reasonable safeguards are not out of place against inexperience and irresponsibility among fledgling teen-age journalists. The point of journalism courses, after all, is to teach non-journalists how to become responsible newsmen and women. We are talking here about high school journalism, not college newspapers, which generally stand apart from college administrations and are staffed by much more mature reporters.
What needs to be stressed here is the importance of reasonable behavior by both high school principals, acting as the ultimate editorial authority, and students experiencing the first joys and pitfalls of journalism.
On most school newspapers there is the same kind of reasonable compromise as takes place every working day in every professional newsroom in America.
What should derive from this controversial court ruling is more discussion, more consultation, about what makes better journalism. That is a quest that need not be confined to high schools.