Newspaper allowed to run murder series

\nSOUTH CAROLINA – When Maranda Williams’ first of a four\narticle series appeared in her high school newspaper, it quickly\ndrew wide-eyed awes from students and teachers. After all, Williams\ntackled an intense subject-a two and a half year old murder story\nwhere both the victim and accused murderer were former students\nat the high school. But Williams’ reporting became of less concern\nthan another controversy that had yet to arise. A few days later\nthe principal met with the newspaper adviser, Kim Stokes, and\npulled the plug on the series.

The staff of Palmetto Leaf, Camden High School’s student\nnewspaper, met in the summer of 1998 to discuss possible story\nideas for the upcoming school year. They, along with Stokes,\nagreed that the murder story, if done in a professional and responsible\nmanner, could be a great idea. It could inform students, lay\nto rest untrue rumors and possibly even deter a future tragedy.\nEthics appeared to be on the side of the Palmetto Leaf.

Williams went to work, knowing full well these articles would\nchallenge her journalistic skills. After a discussion with the\nrest of the staff, Williams set out to report from the point of\nview of the accused murderer’s mother, an attempt to show that\nviolence is not necessarily acquired through genes.

The first article appeared in the September edition, the first\nof the school year. According to Williams, her article dominated\nthe school’s conversations, and she was told by teachers and students\nthat it was the most-read article in the issue. She heard no\nnegative reactions.

According to Stokes, one week later the victim’s mother met with\nCamden’s principal to express her discontent about the article\nand demanded that no other articles about her son’s murder be\npublished. The principal gave her his word, and then told Stokes\nto stop the coverage.

After Stokes broke the news to her staff, she still left them\nwith the option of continuing the series. There is no prior review\npolicy at Camden, so the principal would not see the article until\nafter publication.

“Without hesitation, they all voted to continue the series,”\nwrote Stokes. “I was so proud of them. They had a strong\nopinion, and they were willing to stand strong together, no matter\nthe circumstances.”

The editors pleaded their case before the principal but were turned\ndown. Stokes wrote a letter to the victim’s mother explaining\nthe purpose of the story, but received no response.

However, Williams continued to write the stories and decided to\nsend them to the principal. After reading them, he asked Stokes\nif he could show them to the mother.

“I was torn,” wrote Stokes in an article for the Southern\nInterscholastic Press Association newsletter. “Allowing\nher to read them was censorship in a way, but perhaps she just\nfeared the unknown.”

This resulted in the change of heart the staff was looking for,\naccording to Stokes, who believed the mother, after reading the\narticles, finally understood the angle of the story. Stokes immediately\ntold the staff.

“They were so proud that they had stood together and were\nvictorious. I then explained that it wasn’t about winning or\nlosing; it was about being objective, responsible and reliable\njournalists,” Stokes wrote.

“It has encouraged us all to keep writing,” said Williams.\n”It is our job to inform the students, and that’s what we’ll\nkeep doing.”

As a result of their victory, Stokes received the Joseph W. Schoquist\naward, an annual award sponsored by the Southern Interscholastic\nPress Association given to a student or teacher who contributes\nto the fight against censorship in high school publications. \n