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Student Newspapers Still On Uncertain Ground

It wasn't too long ago that students newspapers were essentially considered house organs, and their staffs were little more than cheerleaders. I was reminded of how much things have changed after reading about events at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School ("TV reporter's worries leads [sic] to Bethesda school pulling student newspaper," The Washington Post, Mar. 26).

The student newspaper, the Tattler, contained several articles about the media's largely negative treatment of teenagers. It illustrated the story with a photo of Andrea McCarren, a local TV journalist who had covered alcohol consumption by teens. She complained to Karen Lockard, the principal, saying that the story could create trouble for her children, who were students at the school. Lockard recalled the paper the next school day after most copies had already been distributed. She denied exercising censorship, maintaining that her concern was preventing harassment of students. A spokesperson for Montgomery County schools asserted that principals have the right to editorial control over student newspapers.

Ordinarily, the tempest would not be newsworthy, but if we really mean that critical thinking is an indispensable goal, it's worthwhile looking a bit deeper into the matter. When I began teaching in the 1960s, student newspapers functioned as an activity. It was opposition to the Vietnam war that transformed them. Principals were blindsided by the commitment of students to express their views. At my high school, the war was off limits to the student newspaper, which was called The Warrior, but students got around the ban by renaming the paper The Worrier and distributing it off school grounds.

The U.S. Supreme Court in two landmark decisions addressed the issue of free speech for students. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District , the high court ruled in 1969 that students did not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." Then in 1988, in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, it turned its attention specifically to student newspapers. It held that censorship decisions needed to be "reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns." In other words, principals could not micromanage newspapers. But what these reasonable concerns entailed were left unstated. Recognizing the ambiguity, seven states passed laws protecting high school journalists from censorship.

Nevertheless, principals were reluctant to relinquish control. As Richard Just, who directed a program for six summers for about 20 high school journalists at Princeton University, explained: "The vast majority of students are unable to practice true journalism at their high school papers. All the students are talented writers and thoughtful intellectuals. Yet, by and large, they work for newspapers that are either explicitly censored or restrained by the looming threat of official disapproval" ("Unmuzzling High School Journalists," The Washington Post, Jan. 12, 2008).

When these conditions exist, they make a mockery of teaching critical thinking. I say that because writing for a student newspaper can develop the wherewithal for analyzing and evaluating timely issues. In light of the resistance to granting student journalists the rights that professional journalists have, I think the best way of fulfilling the potential of student newspapers is to have them designated as public forums. With such status, student editors would have ultimate control over what appears in print. The only retained power by principals in that case would be if content "materially and substantially" interfered with the operation and discipline of their school. That doesn't mean other instances will not arise, but at least certain ground rules will be established.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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