Student journalists in Va. ask for community’s help to stop censorship

VIRGINIA — Tired of an overbearing principal’s priorreview policy and repeated censorship of issues like sex educationand free speech in their school newspaper, students at MiddlesexHigh School in Saluda have taken their plight to the public tochange the policy.

When two successive issues of The Big Blue Review werecensored last month, the newspaper staff wrote a letter to theeditor of the Southside Sentinel calling for public supportto change the school publications policy. The students starteda petition in the small, rural community in the southeastern partof the state, proposing a new policy of their own, based on theStudent Press Law Center’s Model Guidelines.

Carl McWhorter, adviser to the Review, said that aftera recent meeting with Superintendent Mike Myers, he "waspretty much assured that nothing would be changed" and toldthat he may not be kept on as adviser next year.

"They’re afraid for the students to have opinions,"McWhorter said.

The school board in 1996 adopted a publications policy thatstates the Review is "not intended to provide a publicforum for students and the general public," and "theschool principal is responsible for approving all publicationsin accordance with school board policy and his/her judgment anddiscretion."

Unfortunately for the Review staff, current principalRebecca Gates has used her judgment and discretion to censor tworecent issues of the paper, holding up production and denyingthe students their freedom of expression granted under the FirstAmendment.

Ironically, the second issue Gates censored dealt with FirstAmendment rights and newspaper censorship. The first issue tobe pulled included a spread on sex education issues — informationon safe sex and venereal diseases — meant for publication on Valentine’sDay.

"I felt that the content of the issue was inappropriatefor a younger readership and more appropriate for a sex educationclass," Gates said of her decision. "Our student newspaperis inserted into the local paper and goes beyond the school audience."

McWhorter said he was worried the school board would try touse this wider audience as an excuse for censoring content inthe Review. He said with a $1,000 annual allocation fromthe school district, the Review relies on ad revenue fromits public circulation to pay its publication costs for eightissues at $500 per issue.

The students felt their readers should decide for themselveswhat was proper.

"We are asking for the community’s help in this matter,"they said in their letter to the editor. "We feel it is ourright as students to publish this paper, and it is your rightas a community member to know what is going on as well."

"We are continually being taught about our rights as Americans,about the First Amendment and the sacrifices that have been madeby veterans of wars so that we can live in a free country,"the students added. "Yet, when we try to apply our rightsas citizens of the United States, they are flagrantly trampledon by the very people who have told us how important these rightsare all along."

After the Southside Sentinel published the letter, McWhortersaid the administration felt pressured and he was told "reluctantly"to publish an issue of the Review as soon as possible.

The Review then ran in its entirety the spread on censorshipand the First Amendment, including a mail-in coupon for communitymembers to sign on to their petition. The staff will tryto publish the sex education issue next.

This is not the first time the Review has had to relyon community support to battle a restrictive school board, McWhortersaid.

In May 2000 the school board tried to shut down the paper whensome articles in the Review concerned them. But after afront-page article in the Sentinel and a slew of communityletters and phone calls in favor of the student paper, the schoolboard dropped the issue, McWhorter said.

"So I think what they’re gonna do this time is to tryto quietly curtail it," McWhorter said. "I don’t knowhow much success they’re going to have. The parents of the [Reviewstaff] are the ones [in the community] that are vocal and supportive.So it’s gonna be interesting to see what comes out of this."

View the Model Guidelines for High School Student Media in our Resource Center.