Monday, February 07, 2005

Student Journalists Getting Into Hot Water

The Los Angeles Times is reporting that more student journalists have run afoul of various high school administrations. According to The Times:
Censorship of high school papers and disciplining of their editors and reporters are at an all-time high, triggered by a growing disdain for the media in general and by increased pressure on school administrators to "present the right image to the community" in response to mounting budget cuts and federal- and state-mandated educational standards, says Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va.
For as long as there have been student newspapers, there have been controversies involving the delicate balance between the students' First Amendment rights of expression and schools' need to maintain an orderly learning environment. Administrators cite the 1988 "Hazelwood" Supreme Court opinion that held St. Louis school administrators had the right to censor newspaper articles about pregnancy and the effects of divorce on children. The court laid-down the following criteria for nixing student publications:
Schools had to present a reasonable educational justification for censorship. Among those justifications could be stories that were "ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased or prejudiced, vulgar or profane, or unsuitable for immature audiences." Stories could also be censored if they could "associate the school with anything other than neutrality on matters of political controversy or if they "might reasonably be perceived to advocate drug or alcohol use, irresponsible sex or conduct otherwise inconsistent with the 'shared values of a civilized social order.'"
A controversy that was covered by The Times involved a student newspaper at Troy High School in Fullerton, California. Student co-editor Ann Long was "placed on leave of absence" from her post at the Troy Oracle. The conflict arose over an article about two bi-sexual students and one gay student. According to Long, the purpose of the article was to:
"Raise awareness on campus that people with different sexualities go through more emotional stress than the average teenager."
Despite the fact that Long had permission from both the students involved and their parents, the story was pulled. Long was then told to cover sports. Times reporter David Shaw indicated that he had read the article in question, and that it was "sensitively done."

The problem with the decision, as we see it, is that it doesn't really fulfill the criteria set forth by the Supreme Court Decision. If the school's administration had went ahead and allowed the piece to be published, the controversy would (more than likely) have been fierce, (but short) and soon forgotten.

By making the suppression of the article an issue, the school has guaranteed that the controversy would receive much more publicity than it would have otherwise received.

Mortarboard Tip: The Media Drop

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