School-press freedoms nipped by wary officials and tight budgets

Student reporter Kathryn Winsor was skeptical when the school board voted to eliminate San Marin High School's journalism class last spring, effectively killing the newspaper.

The school board in Novato, Calif., said it was a matter of money, but Kathryn suspects the real goal was "silencing a sometimes critical student press."

That's a charge denied by school-board members, who eventually reinstated the class after cries of protest from parents offering to fund the class from their own pockets.

Not that Kathryn doesn't have good reason to worry. Nationwide, these are uneasy times for student journalists and the administrators who look over their shoulders. Facing greater scrutiny from outsiders, principals would prefer some positive publicity rather than internal criticism when they open the pages of their school papers.

"Administrators who are fearful of student journalism and student press rights can use the budget as an excuse to get rid of something they find troublesome anyway," says Ellen Kersey, a journalism adviser in Carmarillo, Calif., and regional director of the Journalism Education Association. In the process, journalism teachers fear that whole schools may be losing a valuable voice and a hands-on way to learn about press freedom.

Yet the recession isn't the only reason for more intervention by administrators. A 1988 US Supreme Court decision upheld their right to censor student publications if it's "reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns."

In the years since, the number of schools reporting censorship by administrators has risen to almost one-third of all papers, according to surveys conducted by Jack Dvorak, a journalism professor at Indiana University in Bloomington.

More journalists in training are calling the Student Press Law Center, a legal assistance center in Virginia, for advice about their rights.

Most callers say their only infraction is criticizing school policies, says SPLC executive director Mark Goodman.

But as students in San Marin discovered last year, they have little legal recourse when an entire journalism program is eliminated outright.

School-board members there insist the school's $3 million budget shortfall is the sole reason for dropping the class. "It's just that it's such a distressing time for education in California," says school board president Perry Newman. "We're having to cut good stuff and we don't want to." They suggested the student newspaper, The Pony Express, could operate as a club instead of being produced during class time.

Ronnie Campagna, who had taught the class for 18 years, wasn't convinced, and neither were her students. "The kids have done some investigative stories that have not pleased the school board," she says.

For example, Kathryn cites one story that criticized school administrators for not letting students stand up in the bleachers during basketball games in the school's gymnasium.

To save the journalism class, students and parents collected pledges totalling $20,000 but the school board opted to reinstate the class shortly before school opened rather than rely on private funds. What's missing this fall from the class is Ms. Campagna, who was replaced by a new teacher with no previous journalism experience.

Faced with the possible elimination of programs at San Marin and other schools, the California Newspaper Publishers Association is urging budget-strapped officials to shave multiple programs rather than cut journalism.

"Few, if any, programs offer a better education in the foundations of American democracy than that found in the publication of a student newspaper," the letter states.

But a challenge even bigger than student-run newspapers is emerging for administrators who worry about their school's reputation. A third of high schools now produce their own TV and radio news programs - many of which are broadcast in surrounding communities via public-access cable channels.

"They're much more fearful about schools with broadcast outlets," Prof. Dvorak says. "It's far more immediate and ... the damage is much greater."

Student newspapers aren't necessarily disappearing as broadcast journalism spreads to more high schools. The proportion of schools with newspapers has held steady at about 85 percent over the past decade, though there is a marked decline in such programs in urban and rural schools due to budget problems.

As a response, the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) began funding grants to high schools that pair up with local daily newspapers to restart their newspapers. ASNE provides up to $5,000 to each school to buy computers and digital cameras, and to pay for printing classes. Local newspaper editors help mentor students and teacher advisers, says ASNE project director Diana Mitsu Kios.

Part of the challenge is selling schools on the value of student journalism.

"High school is the last best opportunity when people are together to learn about what the First Amendment is - that it's living and it affects their lives," Ms. Kios says.

In an era of Internet blogs, schools may come to realize the alternative to a school paper can be much worse, as students create their own unsanctioned and unsupervised alternatives. "Would you rather have students model the Boston Globe or [Internet gossip columnist] Matt Drudge?" asks Mr. Goodman of the SPLC.

Kathryn says that her experience on the school paper sold her on a career in magazine writing. She was glad that the class was reinstated, but while she continues to write for the paper, she and several others opted not to enroll without their former teacher at the helm.

Campagna, meanwhile, says that she's challenging the decision through her union, and perhaps in court. "I love the relationship I can develop with kids in the less formal classroom setting," she says. "I just love empowering kids to see the power of words."

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