INDIANA– When LeAnne Manuel wrotean unsigned editorial for her high school paper on the immigration debate, shewas hoping it would spark a discussion among students.
“I feelextremely passionate about illegal immigration,” said Manuel, a risingsenior at Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis. “I mean, it just makes myblood boil.”
But when Manuel’santi-illegal immigrationeditorial ran in the student newspaper on April 28, administrators confiscatedthe paper, and the discussion quickly turned to how the piece ever made it inthe paper in the first place.
Opinions on the newspaper’sconfiscation varied. Some staff members of theSpotlight said they felt censored.Administrators said the editorial caused a disruption at school and they weredoing their job when they pulled the papers. Student press advocates sayadministrators missed a teachable moment.
Administrators placed newrestrictions on student journalists at Ben Davis as a result of Manuel’seditorial, including requiring prior review of theSpotlight by an assistant principal.Student editors said the paper had been operating as a forum for studentexpression for years and was not regularly reviewed by administrators. A newstudent publications policy set to be approved by the school board sometime thissummer could make some of the new restrictionspermanent.
Manuel’s editorial, titled “Migrant slack-offday also known as May 1,” encouraged students to come to school and notparticipate in the nationwide immigration strike.
“Really, thisentire day of protest is nothing but a reason to skip school,” she wrote.“If immigrants want to show that they are a major part of society, settingthe example at school and work by coming is their bestoption.”
Manuel goes on to advocate in the editorial thatimmigrating illegally to the United States should be afelony.
“Illegal immigrants are doing nothing but breaking ourlaws,” she wrote. “If these illegal aliens think they are making adifference to our society, they have another thingcoming.”
Looking back on the column, Manuel said it“could have been toned down,” but she still thinks she should havethe right to express theopinion.
The Friday the paper came out, Ben Davis Principal JoelMcKinney was at a meeting on the east side of Indianapolis. But when he got windof the editorial, he said he left the meeting and returned to campusimmediately.
“Many students were upset, voiced being angry atthe tone of the editorial,” McKinney said. “There were rumors goingaround that the school doesn’t care for [Hispanics] because theyallowed” the editorial to be printed in the studentpaper.
McKinney said he beefed up security that day as aprecaution.
“I’m in charge of making sure the environmentisn’t disruptive,” he said. “There was no violence, but therewas some verbal confrontations we had to deal with.”
To“help diffuse the tension,” McKinney said administrators did removethe papers.
A meeting was held with Hispanic students in theauditorium the day the paper came out about the “proper way torespond” to the editorial, said Tom Langdoc, a spokesperson for theMetropolitan School District of Wayne Township, of which Ben Davis High Schoolis a part.
Most of theSpotlight staff was at a journalismconvention that Friday at Ball State University, about 60 miles away from thehigh school.
“From what people told us, after it wasdistributed, people were upset, a lot of people were talking about it,”said Brent Fowler, a photo editor for the paper. “When we got back toschool they told us to get our stuff and leave because the administration wasupset.
“I understand that they thought it was a distraction,anything can become a distraction at school. We spent three weeks planning it,and I don’t think it was right for them to take it away and destroy itwithout us knowing. We put hard work into that.”
Mike Beam, thepaper’s editor, refused to comment for this story.
Manuel, theeditorial writer, said school officials told her to stay home the Monday andTuesday following the day the editorial was printed “because of safetyconcerns.”
AlthoughMcKinney said he’s not interested in controlling the paper, he institutedwhat he said was a temporary prior review policy to “err on the side ofcaution.”
McKinney said the assistant principal will provideextra review for the student newspaper because the paper’s adviser, JanetMcKinney, failed to do her job.
Janet McKinney, who is not relatedthe principal, declined to comment for this story.
“All theprevious newspapers she had done her part in making sure she had proofread,anticipated anything out of the ordinary,” Joel McKinney said. “Onthis particular issue she didn’t make that determination. She wasn’tdoing the sponsor’s role of letting me know that there might be apotential problem.”
As a result of the immigration editorial,Fowler, the student photo editor, said administrators made the paperchange a statement in itsmasthead. The paper previously printed in the masthead that it was an open forumfor student expression, but administrators made the paper change it to read inpart, “The Spotlight representsand exemplifies Ben Davis High School and is not a public or openforum.”
“I don’t think that’s righteither,” Fowler said of the masthead statement change. “Theydidn’t consult staff, editors, adviser…it’s our newspaper, and weshould have some say in it.
“They’re censoring us.It’s pretty much what they want the paper to be.”
But theprincipal said he is not trying to censor the paper.
“Idon’t want to change the paper,” McKinney said. “I don’tthink they hear me. I just think they are upset about the whole situation. Ireassure every student who has asked me, I don’t have any desire to changethe students’ practices whatsoever, I just need my sponsor to be moreprepared to point out things that could cause adisruption.”
Through the whole ordeal, Manuel said there was notmuch talk of free speech or the First Amendment.
“I reallydon’t understand the whole free speech in this,” she said.“What’s been shoved down my throat is that the administration toldme I was wrong, I was bad.”
And that message is dangerous foraspiring student journalists, student press advocates said.
JohnBowen, chairman of the Journalism Education Association’s Scholastic PressRights Commission, said he read the editorial and does not feel it should havebeen censored.
“I think it sends a message that some ideas justcertainly shouldn’t be discussed in society,” said Bowen, who isalso a journalism professor at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.
“Even though it’s an unpleasant topic, it’s notthe worst I’ve seen on the subject,” he said, referring toManuel’s editorial.
Bowen said administrators oftentimes takethe easy way out in dealing with these types of situations, punishing thestudents who speak instead of the students who are makingthreats.
“Students learn very quickly if they are censored thatthey don’t have a right to speak,” he said. “It is far betterfor a principal to use this as a springboard for discussion of logic rather thanemotion.”
Adam Maksl, a journalism graduate student at BallState University and former editor of theSpotlight at Ben Davis High School,echoed Bowen’s feelings and said the principal missed a teachablemoment.
“How can they be expected to practice ethical decisionmaking when they are not given the opportunity to do so. That’s whatscares me,” Maksl said. “When you have a higher power coming in andsaying ‘by my estimation you messed up, you took that responsibility anddidn’t live up to what you are suppose to do with it, now you don’thave those rights anymore,’ students aren’t learning from it,because they aren’t given the right to make any ethical decisionsagain.”
Diana Hadley, assistant director of the Indiana HighSchool Press Association, said her organization did not want to take sides onthe incident. But she said the IHSPA is opposed to a new publications policycurrently before the school board that could limit students’ free pressrights even further at Ben Davis High School.
“We really hateto see policy made after one incident, which they don’t believe they aredoing, but that’s what it looks like,” Hadley said. “Idon’t want this to become us against them. IHSPA really wants to work withadministration so that we can all teach the First Amendment and responsiblejournalism.”
A newpolicy applying to “SchoolSponsored Publications & Productions” was introduced at the schoolboard’s May 15 meeting, said Langdoc, the district spokesman. Langdoc saida new policy should be in place before students return for school nextyear.
A portion of the new proposed policy reads, “Thepublications and productions of the School District are not a public forum forthe use of non-students or for the expression of values contrary to the valuesinherent in the curriculum established for students by theBoard.”
Unsigned editorials would also be banned if theproposed policy is adopted.
Hadley said the proposed policy could bedangerous for student journalists depending on how it isinterpreted.
“Two different people could look at this policyand go in very different directions as far as still allowing student voice andlooking at everything they do,” she said.
Hadley said althoughManuel may not have proceeded in the right way with her anti-illegal immigrationeditorial, everything should not be censored from now on because of it. Sheimplied that more coaching on the adviser’s part could have avoided thesituation entirely.
“I think controversial topics are certainlyimportant to discuss,” she said. “I think that the problem oftenarises when people feel that a side has not been expressed. Clearly fairness isa major factor as you work through those controversialtopics.
“Students want to be fair, but because they are young,they might not have considered all the angles of the issue. It’s importantin those opinion pieces to help them think through opinions, express themselvesin the best way they can.”
Hadley said her organization is worried about effortsacross Indiana to reign in control over student speech.
In late 2005,a high school newspaper in Columbus, Ind., ran a story about oral sex which ledto the school board voting on whether administrators should have more controlover content in the student newspaper. In a success for high school studentnewspapers, the Columbus North Consolidated School Board voted against placingtougher restrictions on what the student paper can run.
Studentjournalists in Noblesville, Ind., 70 miles from Columbus, have not been so luckywith their oral sex article. In February, Noblesville High School principalAnnetta Petty informed students hours before deadline that the article wouldhave to go before a committee that would decide whether the topic wasappropriate. Weeks later, the committee recommended the article should run, onlyto have the superintendent, Lynn Lehman, decide the article had no place in thestudent paper.
“I think that at the IHSPA our concerns revolvearound what seems to be the circling of the wagons among school corporations tocontrol all of the messages,” Hadley said.
She said herorganization is afraid administrators look at them as “taking advantage ofthe First Amendment.” Because of this perception, she said IHSPA is tryingto make inroads with administrators.
“We’re supportive ofthe staff and advisers without making administrators think we are out to getthem,” she said.
By working more with administrators, Hadleysaid she hopes her organization will be better equipped to protectstudents’ First Amendment rights.
But in the case of Ben DavisHigh School, the First Amendment may have been lost in the storm of outrage thatfollowed the publication of Manuel’s column.
“I think weare going to be held back in our learning process because we have to be soworried about what our assistant principal is going to think about ournewspaper,” Manuel said of the new prior review policy. “Theadministration is making us feel dumb, like we all have done something wrong.But none of us did anything wrong. We did what we have done the entire year. Wehave a quality newspaper, and we are a really goodprogram.”
McKinney, the principal, agrees the school has aquality newspaper. He said the April 28 issue was reprinted a week later withoutManuel’s column because it was “so welldone.”
Because of the potential for self-censorship in thefuture, Maksl said he worries about students’ ability to take oncontroversial topics in his alma mater’s paper.
“Ofcourse students should be able to write about a topic, especially one that has aclear political value and is being discussed in the professional media aroundthe country right now anyway,” he said. “But as with any member ofthe press, any journalist, there should be some thoughts from the writer,what’s the best way to do this in an ethical way. How do I say this in away that is going to make people not only understand what I am trying to say,but think about it for themselves, question their own thoughts and beliefs, anduse that as a tool to spark discussion.”
Overreacting tostudents’ pieces and instituting harsh restrictions is not the way toteach responsibility, Maksl said. Allowing students to make mistakes and lettingthe discussion play out in the community is the best way for student reportersto learn, he said.
—by Evan Mayor, SPLC staff writer