Lessons learned in school about press freedom. Censorship, democracy, and the rights of students

`EVERYTHING that happens in school is a learning experience.'' The clich'e has taken on new life in the aftermath of the recent Supreme Court decision giving school officials' broad power to censor school newspapers, plays, and other ``school-sponsored expressive activities.''

Three weeks after the high court's ruling, educators are still asking: What did the ruling teach? For many, it was not just a lesson about First Amendment rights and censorship; it sharpened the focus on the larger question of ``shared'' authority in schools. There is no single answer.

``Our mission from society is to teach both content and values,'' says Scott Thomson, executive director of the 37,000-member National Association of Secondary School Principals, ``even when society can't agree on those values.'' The ruling should be seen more as a populist decision than a conservative versus liberal one, he says.

Dr. Thomson lauds the court for continuing the direction it has been taking over the last five years. ``The court seems to be saying, `We are not going to act as a super school board,''' he says. So long as reasonable policies are in effect, the court places a higher value on the community's knowing what is best for the education of its children.

``Issues of censorship in a school are very complex,'' says John Esty, executive director of the National Association of Independent Schools. ``My first instinct is to avert pressure from any source that seeks to make it simple.'' Schools are often the battleground for many of society's unresolved issues. What must not be lost sight of is that these concerns need a ``special space.'' Simply to fight for important issues in the schools at the expense of learning can be destructive, he says.

But just because the legal and societal pendulum is swinging in the direction of giving ``legal sanctity to that school space,'' it does not follow that this ``allows an abrogation of student civil rights,'' Mr. Esty says.

Citizenship is learned through the local community's values, says Roland Barth, co-director of the Principal Center and a professor of education at Harvard. ``I think the prevailing school model is an authoritarian one, and the Supreme Court by its decision reinforces this.'' The decision will probably retard schools developing a culture of ``shared leadership,'' one, he says, where democratic processes are respected and taught to students.

In many schools, says Dr. Barth, the question of the appropriateness of an article would never have been so autocratically handled. It would have been handled more democratically. ``Principals have to have authority to make decisions, or the whole school [enterprise] will melt down,'' he says. But ``there's a kind of wave for decentralizing control, democratizing control, that is paradoxical to this decision,'' he says.

Just what does democracy mean in the context of high school journalism? More than anything else, a closer look at both community standards and the application of sound principles of journalism, school officials say.

``The scholastic press must have responsible people in the role of running a paper,'' says Jerome McNichol, a journalism teacher at Bozeman Senior High School in Bozeman, Mont., and a former journalist. He welcomes the Supreme Court decision because it establishes clear lines of authority.

``People are not so naive, not to know that social gatekeepers occupy newsrooms,'' says Mr. McNichol. The issue is: Do they make the decisions in a professional and a responsible way.

McNichol, whose high school newspaper, Hawktalk, has won state and national awards, points out that the court decision did not say school newspapers could not cover certain topics, but that they could not cover them in certain ways.

Niskayuna High School principal Ed Carangelo, in wealthy, suburban Niskayuna, N.Y., first sees his high school's award-winning newspaper, the Warrior, when the student body sees it. And that is soon enough for Jeffrey Anapolsky, its student news editor.

``A school newspaper should be a student newspaper, not run by administrators,'' says Jeffrey. Well-written articles on sensitive subjects must be published, and ``we are capable of deciding that,'' says the senior. who devotes hours to putting out the best paper he can.

Holly Rosenkrantz, a senior who is editor in chief of the Warrior, concurs - explaining how the 22-member student editorial board reaches a consensus on whether a story will run. She does admit that the journalism program's adviser and the district's legal counsel have final say over any question of libel.

Principal Carangelo sums up the tension in shared authority. ``I like the notion of the court's giving space and authority to principals,'' he says. But ``I want a quality program, providing a quality learning experience for students.'' If that means giving students what editors in the real world have, so be it, he says.

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