Fla. student journalists cite nearly 20 incidents of censorship

FLORIDA — An article about the lifestyle of homosexualteens is the latest casualty in a string of material held by Satellite HighSchool officials and has prompted student journalists to challenge theadministrators’ decisions about what is publishable in the schoolpaper.Student editors have documented articles, quotes, columns, lettersto the editor and a cartoon that administrators have asked them to remove fromeach of the five issues of The Satellite Telstar this school year,including nine items from the March issue which has not yet gone to press.Administrators have removed everything from quotes about the footballteam’s poor record to an article about a student hit by an administratordriving a golf cart on campus.Assistant Principal Doug Cook reviewsThe Telstar prior to publication and has ordered nearly 20 items to beremoved according to the newspaper staff, a policy that seems to be in conflictwith Brevard County School District bylaws. The policy for school-sponsoredpublications says, “The decision as whether or not something is publishedor produced shall be made by the advisor with appeal to theprincipal.”Cook and Telstar adviser Valerie Jensen were notavailable for comment, but editor in chief Nancy Dyer said that Cook alwaystells her the material he wants removed will cause a “disruption” inschool. However, Dyer holds, “The things they’re censoringwon’t cause a disruption.” She and the staff said they feel theadministration mainly does not “want the paper to reflect negative thingsabout the school.” Cook’s decision to hold the article aboutgay teens, which discussed students revealing their sexuality and homophobia oncampus, was appealed to Principal Mark Elliott and eventually to the schooldistrict officials. Elliott declined to comment and referred questionsto the spokesperson for Brevard County School District, Sara Stern. Elliott toldthe local newspaper, Florida Today, he was concerned the students quotedin the article might be harassed or even assaulted on campus.Underschool district policy, “the board reserves the right to designate and prohibitthe publications … which are not protected by the right of free expressionbecause they violate the rights of others.” Materials are prohibited if they areprejudicial, libelous, incite violence and advocate a violation of law or schoolregulation. Material that may “constitute a direct and substantial dangerto the health of students” also can be prohibited from publication.Stern said district officials were concerned that The Telstar hadnot asked for permission from the parents of the quoted students beforepublishing the material. “These students are below the age of 18, and witha topic with this sensitive nature, we stand the chance of being sued by theindividual parents for violating the student’s rights by producing thismaterial,” Stern said.However, courts have said parentalpermission is not necessary if the minors are mature enough to appreciate theconsequences to what they are consenting to.Dyer said the staff hadconsidered the potential effects on the quoted students, but she said,“The teens were very proud of being gay, and it was stated in the articlethat they’re openly gay.”Dyer said that The Telstarstaff works hard to be responsible in its reporting. Staff members are requiredto take a year-long journalism course to qualify to work on the student-runnewspaper, which is funded completely by advertising revenue.“Wedo not try to publish curse words, derogatory statements or references,”Dyer said.Stern said the district is not censoring the students.“The students are alleging that we are censoring them when in fact we aretelling them they need to have the permission of the parents of these studentsprior to having this article appear in the paper,” Stern said. Shealso said that had the students appealed Cook’s decision to removeprevious questioned material, “there may have been some cases where thestudents’ articles would have run.”The Florida ScholasticPress Association has recognized The Telstar as one of the top studentnewspaper in the state, but staffers say the administrators “heavyediting” has left an atmosphere of self-censorship and doubt amid thestaff.Dyer said that ideas for articles at brainstorming meetings areoften met with comments such as, “I’d be really scared to pursuethat” or “We can’t write that because the administration willcut it.”Sophomore Taylor Stallings has had two of her columnsremoved. Most recently she was told her column about “moochers”would be cut.“Naturally I was angry and upset,” Stallingssaid. “What they’re doing, it’s not allowing us to bejournalists and a lot of people have ruled out journalism as a job or careerbecause of this.”Dyer said it was time for the Telstarstaffers to stand up for their rights. She said she has already arranged tospeak with an attorney who is interested in taking her case.“Ithink that if [administrators] try to tell us what to write or try to tell uswhat not to write, our newspaper becomes fluff,” Dyer said. “Ireally do feel strongly enough about this to stand up for it.”

Read students’ citations of censorship