Friday, November 18, 2005

Censorchimps: The Washington State Sub-Species

One of our TipWonks has alerted us to the possible existence of a brand-new sub-species of Censorchimp. The discovery was made in Everett, which is in Washington State:
Student editors at Everett's high schools must let their principals review their newspapers before they are published.

That's what the Everett School Board decided in a special hearing Tuesday.

Students and administrators have been arguing for three months about student journalists' rights to operate free of school control.

"We recognize that having freedom brings responsibilities," said Sara Eccleston, an editor of The Kodak, Everett High School's 106-year-old student newspaper. "To take away freedom is to take away responsibility."

The school board's president, Roy Yates, did open the door for more discussion.

"Maybe we need to revisit the policy, and that's a different issue than the one that's before us," Yates said.

The Kodak's first issue for the year was to come out Oct. 17. It never did. The second issue is scheduled for Nov. 22.

Eccleston and co-editor Claire Lueneburg said they will discuss what to do next with their lawyer.

"I think it's clear that we will be pursuing this further," Lueneburg said.

The fight started after Everett High School's new principal, Catherine Matthews, asked to review The Kodak before it was printed. A dispute ensued over whether she had the right to prior review.

No principal in at least 15 years has routinely reviewed the newspaper, and an editorial policy in the paper identifies it as a "student forum" - a legal distinction meant to give it more freedom from school control.

Administrators argue that the newspaper is not a student forum, since school materials and funds are used and students earn credit as part of a class.

A 7-year-old school board policy allows principals to review student publications.

Editors at the district's two other high schools, Cascade and Henry M. Jackson, said they will join The Kodak editors in continuing to protest the policy, which they say fosters mistrust and potential censorship.

"For some reason, people believe that because we're not 18, we don't have the same First Amendment constitutional rights as they do," said Amanda Francke, 18, a senior and editor in chief of Cascade's Stehekin.

"We would like to see it turn out differently, but I think there's a lot of hope," said David Coulter, co-editor of Jackson's Stiqayu.

Tuesday's meeting was packed with students, parents and supporters. Some wore T-shirts with the text of the First Amendment printed on the back. Others held picket signs saying "Trust us!" outside before the meeting.

Two Everett police officers were in the parking lot because of concern over potential unruliness from the media covering the event, district spokeswoman Gay Campbell said.

Board members said they were impressed by The Kodak editors' maturity and arguments.

If the hearing were about an inappropriately censored article, board member Paul Roberts said he would "bend over backward" for the students.
The Everett School District is attempting to invoke certain provisions of a landmark 1988 U. S. Supreme Court opinion, Hazlewood v. Kuhlmeier. (Court's Opinion here) Essentially, the Court ruled that school newspapers which had not been established as forums for student expression were subject to lesser First Amendment protections than those publications that had been founded as forums for student expression.

Overturning a lower court's ruling, the Supreme Court upheld a high school principal's decision to delete articles about pregnancy and the impact of divorce upon students in the principal's school.

The students at Everett High argued that their paper, The Kodak, was indeed a forum for student expression, and therefore entitled to a higher level of First Amendment protection.

Without having access to the paper's archives, it would be difficult to give a reasoned opinion about whether or not this paper was established as, or has come to be regarded as, such a "forum for student expression." (Attempts to find copies online have proven fruitless.)

However, let's look at this from another perspective. Many school districts have established Board Policies (as cited above) that permit school administrators to block publication of those articles that are deem libelous or of such a nature as to incite students to participate in criminal acts or destructive civil commotion.

I imagine that this is the line of reasoning being used by Principal Mathews when she directed the paper's editors to submit the paper's articles to her for review prior to publication.

Which leaves us with this: Was Principal Mathews' "request" unreasonable?

That would depend on the the Kodak's established practices and record. If, as stated in the article above, the paper had not been reviewed or had articles deleted for content in over 15 years, it is my guess that the principal provoked an unnecessary confrontation with The Kodak's student editors and their multitude of supporters.

Based upon my 14 years of experience in public education, my guess is that Ms. Mathews, being a new principal, wanted to make some changes in the way things are done at Everett High. Principals sometimes do this in order to establish their "Administrative Presence" on the campus, and subtly (or not so subtly) affirm their authority over the school.

I'll bet that this principal was truly astonished by the firestorm of controversy that her decision has caused, probably to the point of wishing that she had never stirred-up what has become a hornet's nest. For her, I believe that his whole episode has turned into some sort of nightmare.

As for the Superintendent and Governing Board voting to uphold the principals decision, it might be a case of "backing-up their administrator," who, rightly or wrongly, was empowered to make the decision based upon the board policy. Administrators in general are very loath to overturn one of their subordinate's actions as the general belief is that it would tend to "undercut" the subordinate's authority.

I think that it is highly likely that Principal Mathews wishes that she could roll-back the clock and
take a mulligan on this one.

Read more about this incident
here, and here. Unfortunately, the District's website has nothing to say on the matter; it would have been nice to get their side of the story. See Everett High School's website, over there.
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