More-controversial material in student papers raises issues of censorship

Tyler Hinds doesn't want to see a pair of scissors again for a long time.

On March 2, the high school senior in Portland, Ore., and his colleagues spent hours cutting his column out of 1,100 copies of the Parkrose High School paper when the principal objected to his tongue-in-cheek jabs at computer nerds -a group the official felt needed protecting. It was either cut the offending article out, or not release the paper at all.

"I didn't agree with it," Mr. Hinds says of the censoring. "We're not allowed to have opinions on the opinion page anymore."

Censorship is a front-and-center issue at many public high schools. A 1988 Supreme Court decision gave administrators more control over student publications. But recently, a new climate of restraint has tightened boundaries even further, driven by adults' post-Columbine concerns about violence in writing as well as the desire to shape a school's public image in an era of accountability.

"[Censorship] is increasing pretty dramatically, and Columbine concerns are a part of that," says Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va. (, which fields thousands of requests from students and advisers about their First Amendment rights.

At the same time, students are broadening their coverage beyond dances and track meets to address more-weighty issues like sexuality and drugs. And their articles are reaching wider audiences, thanks to the Internet.

"I don't think high school papers are just doing pretend journalism any more," says Rick Ayers, faculty adviser to the Berkeley (Calif.) High School paper. "It's the real thing, just from the student point of view."

Those opposed to the censoring say it's difficult to teach the principles of journalism under restrictive conditions. They also charge that students are losing a valid forum for expression -something that leads them to less-supervised options, like the Web or underground papers.

"High school is really the defining point in most teenagers' lives," says senior Steven Barrie-Anthony, editor of the Berkeley High School paper (www. "If there's a place where a dialogue can be created and maintained, it really helps."

This year, stories on topics from affirmative action and abortion to backyard wrestling and cheerleading have been rejected by principals. While many administrators take a hands-off approach, others say they are within their rights to review student publications - which go out in the name of the school.

"Administrative review of school-sponsored publications is perfectly legitimate and legal and common in this district and districts across the US," says Paul Prevenas, superintendent of the Brookings-Harbor School District in Brookings, Ore.

Some administrators say the need for them to step in comes down to the quality of the faculty adviser,who, in addition to being the gatekeeper for libel and slander, also has to keep in check students' immaturity and tendencies to tweak authority.

"I'm not against anything negative. If you're in this job, you take criticism day in and day out," says Connie Malatesta, principal and former school-paper adviser at Hatboro-Horsham High School in Hatboro, Pa. Ms. Malatesta has come under fire this year for censoring a piece on flatulence.

"We support the First Amendment. We'd be crazy not to," she says. "It's more a question of what's appropriate in an educational setting."

Such oversight has the support of many adults. According to a recent First Amendment Center survey, those who strongly agree that high-schoolers should be allowed to report on controversial issues without approval of school authorities fell to 19 percent from 24 percent between 1997 and '99.

But making sure student rights are protected is of growing concern to many educators and legislators. Six states -Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, and Massachusetts - have laws to protect student journalists. Many others periodically consider such legislation, which is often controversial. Except for the California law, which has existed for decades, the statutes are a response to rights being taken away by the 1988 Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, says Mr. Goodman.

In Hazelwood, the court said that educators who exert control are not "offending" the First Amendment "so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns."

But, says Harry Proudfoot, longtime adviser at Westport (Mass.) High School, "Hazelwood created a climate that said censorship is OK. Before, you had to sneak around if you wanted to censor a high school paper."

State laws often protect schools from being held legally responsible for content in student papers. But even without the laws, schools rarely get into trouble over student writings, Goodman says. "There is not one published court decision in the country where a school official or a school district has been held responsible for what's published in a student publication."

And not all principals have warmed to the Hazelwood decision. Michael Durson, principal at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, Md., is cautious.

"Hazelwood gives school principals more leeway than might be healthy," he says. "We expect our high school kids to make decisions about their future, drugs, and sexual activity. I think we need to trust them to develop opinions," and express them.

Many educators say it is imperative that students have a free forum. Not only is it the best way to teach journalism, but teens tend to listen to their peers over adults on issues like joining a gang, or practicing safe sex. More important, they say, if students aren't allowed to report on what goes on in their schools, no one will know if things are amiss.

Lack of such a forum may have contributed to the rise of a controversial underground newspaper at Palisades Charter High School in Pacific Palisades, Calif., in March, according to Katie Braude, a parent representative to the school's governance council. "As far as I can tell, it barely exists," she says of the school's official student paper.

"If the climate at the school were different, I don't think it would have gotten this out of hand," she explains. Eleven students involved in the underground paper - full of what she calls "scatological teenage stuff" - have been suspended. Of those, four have been transferred. "[The student newspaper] played a very important role and has been sorely missed," she says.

Others say such actions are to be expected when students are deprived of expression.

"People don't understand why students are acting out, why they are violent. We don't give them any nonviolent options to express themselves - and they have a lot to say," says Kathleen Raley, who resigned as faculty adviser to the student newspaper at Oregon's Brookings-Harbor High School in February.

Last fall, after the first edition of the school paper published two stories that officials said violated rules about student privacy, she was told that the principal would review every issue before it went to press. Ongoing differences between the principal and the paper's staff have kept a paper out of the school since then. "The students really miss the paper," Ms. Raley says.

"Districts are interested in protecting their image," she says, "and school papers can be threatening because students don't always paint a rosy picture of how things are going."

In the case of the nerds column, adviser David Cole says the column might have gone unnoticed if there weren't a host of other issues facing the school - including technological ones. "In our charged political environment, even the most minor things can cause overreactions," he says, adding that the banning probably drew more attention to the column.

The principal says the piece targeted a group getting picked on, and subtlely even suggested violence toward them. "We work hard here to create a safe environment," says Principal Peter Nordbye, who had not censored anything before, and who does not usually approve the paper before it's printed. He's dealt with students being harassed because they were identified as nerds, and says he received thank-you notes from two students after the ban.

But Goodman and others say the proof that students don't need censoring lies in the many strong publications that thrive without it.

Berkeley High School's is one of them. The paper regularly reports controversy - problems with school policies, or polls on the number of faculty members who drink and use drugs. Last fall, they even broke a story the local media missed: When a teenager from India died in an apparent accident in an apartment, students wondered why she wasn't in school. Through interviews with students, reporters Megan Greenwell and Iliana Montauk found she had been involved in indentured servitude. "I had no idea how big this story would be," says Mr. Barrie-Anthony, the paper's editor.

Mr. Ayers, the paper's adviser, said the students faced tough moments - like being thrown out of a restaurant run by a suspect in the case - in getting that scoop. "They persevered and they got a good story," he says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today