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New Era for Student Newspaper Advisers

The quarter-century anniversary of Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier is not only a reminder of how far faculty advisors for student newspapers have come in establishing their rights but also of how far they still have to go to be true professionals.

When I received my M.S. in journalism from UCLA in 1964, I was offered a position as instructor at a local community college. Although the job required me to teach classes in the subject, the primary responsibility was to oversee the student newspaper. Since I wanted to teach, rather than act as a production manager, I turned down the offer to join the faculty at a high school near UCLA, where I did my student teaching in English and remained for the duration of my 28-year career.

It was soon afterward that the high school newspaper became a lightning rod for student protest over the Vietnam War in ways I never imagined. The veteran journalism advisor was caught between unrelenting pressure from the principal, who asserted his right as final arbiter of what appeared, and from parents, who argued that their children had the right to express their views. Frustrated and angry, the student staff wrote, published and delivered off campus their edition, changing the name of the newspaper from The Warrior to The Worrier.

I don't know how the journalism teacher-advisor managed throughout the ordeal. Let's not forget that it was only in 1969 that the free speech rights of students were clarified in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. The U.S. Supreme Court had not yet issued its ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier in 1988, which held that student free speech rights did not necessarily protect school-sponsored publications.

But even if both rulings had come earlier, I'm not sure what rights she would have possessed as a faculty advisor. Would she have been correct if she had allowed students to express their views in editorials about controversial issues? How could she have possibly been able to judge if what students wrote constituted a disruptive threat, as the Supreme Court later decided?

Since that era, several states have passed laws protecting public high school journalists and their advisors from censorship. In Jan. 2009, for example, California enacted the Journalism Teacher Protection Act, which is the most stringent in the nation. It closed a loophole that guaranteed free speech rights for students but failed to offer the same protection for advisors. It shields employees from being "dismissed, suspended, disciplined, reassigned, transferred, or otherwise retaliated against" for solely refusing an administrator's order to illegally censor speech.

Yet these laws are subject to differing interpretations. For example, if newspapers are designated as public forums, students are given the authority to make decisions about content. In these cases, principals are rarely permitted to censor unless they can prove that the content "materially and substantially" interferes with the school's operation and discipline. The trouble is that principals and advisors don't always agree on whether the newspaper qualifies for that status. Moreover, local customs and traditions often play a subtle but powerful role in determining outcomes.

In Jun. 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association tried to clarify the issue. "A state possesses legitimate power to protect children from harm," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, "but that does not include a free-floating power to restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed." The ruling dealt with the sale of violent video games to children but by extension was seen as applying to books, plays and movies as well. Scalia noted that "Grimm's Fairy Tales, for example, are grim indeed." He also pointed to "Snow White," "Cinderella," and "Hansel and Gretel."

In light of the increasing emphasis on developing critical thinking skills in students, it's hard to understand why we persist in squandering one of the most promising ways of developing such wherewithal. School newspapers that function as little more than house organs, replete with fluff articles, shortchange students. Principals like them that way because they're not controversial. But the price paid for such serenity is too high.

It's time we realize that the Internet has exposed young people to information hitherto unavailable to prior generations. They can handle contentious issues. The question is whether we can.

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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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