Editorials under attack

LeAnne Manuel was on a journalism field trip to Ball State University when a friend called to warn her she might not want to return to school that day.

“She said ‘LeAnne, people are crying. It’s bad, real bad.’” Manuel said.

That day, April 28, an unsigned editorial written by Manuel was published in Spotlight, the student newspaper at Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis. The editorial, titled “Migrant slack-off day also known as May 1,” encouraged students not to participate in the nationwide strike supporting rights for illegal immigrants, but to attend school as usual.

When some of her fellow students found the editorial offensive, school administrators confiscated the remaining copies of the paper and have now imposed new restrictions on Spotlight, including requiring prior review by an assistant principal.

Manuel’s story is not unique. Students around the country have their viewpoints silenced every year, and the 2005-06 school year was no exception. In Illinois, Indiana and Utah students faced efforts to prevent them from speaking their minds on topics such as immigration reform, homosexuality and sexually transmitted disease. 

Just as diverse as the topics on which student journalists choose to opine are the methods by which administrators and community members attempt to keep them from doing so.

The policy approach

Student opinion pieces – be they editorials or columns – are particularly vulnerable to attack by administrators because, in addition to covering controversial issues, they naturally advocate one opinion as being “right” or superior to others. 

In the case of Manuel’s editorial opposing illegal immigration, students who reacted vocally found the superior tone of her writing insulting.

“Illegal immigrants are doing nothing but breaking our laws,” Manuel wrote. “If these illegal aliens think they are making a difference to our society, they have another thing coming.”

Hearing of the tension back at school on her cell phone, Manuel said she was afraid for her life. Ben Davis Principal Joel McKinney said that, while there was no physical violence, the editorial did spark some heated verbal confrontations. 

As a result, administrators changed long-standing policies to assure such a “disturbance” does not happen again. These included revoking the paper’s claim that it was an “open forum for student expression,” and instituting a policy of prior review to forecast potential disruptions.

“I don’t have any desire to change the students’ practices whatsoever,” McKinney said. “I just need my sponsor to be more prepared to point out things that could cause a disruption.”

Administrators also hope to make the restrictive policy district-wide. The school board has drafted a new student publications and productions policy, which places limits on what topics students can cover and prohibits unsigned editorials.

A spokesman for the district said it hopes to implement the policy by the time students begin class in August.

Despite the overwhelming policy changes, Manuel said the worst part for her was being prohibited from writing editorials in the final issue.

“I felt like all my responsibilities were taken away,” Manuel said. “It was like I was just another peon on the staff.”

The neutralizing approach

Opinion pieces frequently advocate some kind of action that administrators often fear will reflect negatively on their school or cause conflict. This often results in attempts to defuse editorials, neutering them of their forceful language or requiring the student to give both sides of an argument.

Stephen Delaney, a senior at Wheaton-Warrenville South High School in suburban Chicago, faced such attempts to tone down a column he submitted to the student newspaper The Pride last September.

In his column, titled “The importance of coming out,” Delaney announced he is gay, shared his experience telling his friends and family and urged other gay students to come out as well.

“My main objective of this article is to urge other homosexuals to come out,” Delaney wrote. “Even if it is just to one friend, letting out that huge secret is such a relief.”

But Delaney’s column did not run in The Pride. Principal Dawn Snyder prohibited its publication, saying the topic was acceptable but the way it was written was not. She said the column was written as a personal letter to another student. 

Delaney admitted that he did have a particular student in mind when he wrote the column, but said he did not specifically call him out. He said he had written the column in such a way that he hoped it would help others as well.

“At the time there was this kid at my school who I knew was gay, and knew he was seeing boys and he was dating this girl,” Delaney said. “He knew he was gay, but he was afraid to admit who he was. I was hoping to let him and anyone else reading know it’s OK to come out.”

Snyder said she would allow the column to run only if Delaney made several changes, including “softening the blow” of the column’s lede, in which Delaney explained that he is gay, and removing an announcement of “National Coming Out Day.” Delaney made the changes, but Snyder still would not let it run.

Delaney said he felt Snyder wanted his column to be neutral on homosexuality.

“That wasn’t something I wanted to do,” Delaney said. “I didn’t want to make it a historical article or give the cons [of being gay].”

The purist approach

While some advocate neutrality in student opinions, others attempt to stifle them all together.

Last November, The Crusader, the student newspaper at Lone Peak High School in Highland, Utah, published a point-counterpoint on the formation of a Gay-Straight Alliance at the school. Principal Chip Koop approved the topic, “as long as it didn’t become a promotion or gay bashing.”

But parent Stephen Graham accused the school of breaking state laws by allowing the topic to be discussed. Graham, whose daughter Elise wrote the column opposing the creation of GSA, is the president of the Standard of Liberty Foundation, a Christian nonprofit that opposes the “homosexual activist movement.”

Graham said in an e-mail that he does not believe students should be allowed to discuss certain topics in public schools, saying, “Not all points of view are worthwhile.”

“It makes no sense for kids who have no adult life experience to be allowed society-sanctioned, unlimited freedom to indoctrinate other kids on serious topics which have to do with psychological, emotional, spiritual and physical health,” Graham said.

He also took issue with a May column in The Crusader that advocated vaccinating young girls for human papilloma virus, which can be spread by sexual contact. Graham maintains that public schools are “no place for discussion about sexual behaviors,” except as defined in the state’s abstinence-only sex education policy.

“Budding journalists should be taught by their teachers that they will be free to share their opinions on adult topics when they have left public school, reached adulthood and have an adult audience,” Graham said.

Graham asked both the Utah Attorney General’s Office and state board of education to investigate the matter, however both declined.

Samantha Tuttle, editor in chief of The Crusader, said Graham’s complaints led her and her staff to second-guess and self-censor. She said to prevent backlash, some articles were not written.

“We had a picture of a someone dressed up as a punk on Halloween but we couldn’t put it in the paper because we were afraid Stephen Graham would say that the guy wearing eyeliner as a punk is promoting homosexuality,” Tuttle said. “His exercise of free agency took away ours.”

A principal’s perspective

Lone Peak Principal Chip Koop said, as the case with his school shows, administrators have many constituencies to appease, a factor that he said leads them away from allowing completely free student expression. He said oftentimes prohibitions are a matter of public relations.

“My role as an administrator is to be sensitive to all the feelings and attitudes of the school and community and maybe tame writing that may offend,” Koop said.

He said the situation with Graham illustrates the position principals often find themselves in when a student opinion piece steps over the proverbial line. 

In the Gay-Straight Alliance incident, Koop said he felt both points were well argued and, since the point-counterpoint format ensured balance, he did not anticipate any controversy.

“I didn’t worry about it,” Koop said.

But when Graham contacted Koop to say he felt the school broke state law, Koop found himself in the position of having to defend the decision to run the columns when he had not made the decision to run them.

“He wanted a retraction and an apology letter,” Koop said. “He wanted to educate my teachers about the law and what you can and cannot say.”

Eventually, Koop said, the issue died when school district attorneys concluded that the school broke no laws. 

Koop said the prospect of having to deal with the complaints of community members is one factor that leads administrators to be cautious of allowing students to opine on controversial topics. Another, he said, is about the school’s environment.

“I have a great culture here,” Koop said. “I don’t want to do things that are going to create any kind of a hostile environment.”

Koop said he does not believe students should be allowed to write whatever they want in a student newspaper, but said a paper is about more than just covering football games and advance placement tests.

“There has to be a window for hot topics that are out there,” Koop said. “We need to give students the opportunity to explore, while making sure it’s done right.”

‘Making sure it’s done right’

John Bowen, a professor of journalism at Kent State University and chair of the Journalism Education Association’s Press Rights Committee, said oftentimes administrators’ concern with making sure student opinion pieces are “done right” can lead to viewpoint discrimination. 

“I think that’s what we saw at Ben Davis, and I think it’s probably going to happen more and more because we’re becoming a less tolerant society,” Bowen said.

He said a principal’s concern should be with matters of curriculum instead of newspaper content. 

“I think a principal should be more concerned with making sure the curriculum attempts to teach students to do it right,” Bowen said. “The principal should work with the teacher to make sure the curriculum includes things that teach how to write a column thoroughly.”

David Knight has been teaching high school students how to effectively express their opinions for more than 25 years. He conducts workshops at scholastic journalism conventions around the country and has read his share of student opinion writing.

“I think it has an important place in high school journalism, and can be the strongest writing in a publication if students take it seriously,” Knight said. “It can also be some of the worst writing ever.”

Knight said student opinion writing, good or bad, should be protected and is important because it allows students to relate to one another. He also said it can be a valuable tool for administrators to learn what kind of issues students are interested in and dealing with.

“There was one column I read about sexual abuse,” Knight said. “And a lot of students have read that and gotten help for it. That’s some of the value.”

Fred Fiske, chairman of the National Conference of Editorial Writers’ Committee on Journalism and Education, said learning strong editorial writing skills can be useful to students no matter what profession they go into.

“After all,” Fiske said, “it’s important to know how to think logically, consider competing points of view and make your way to a conclusion that makes sense to you.”

Fiske said he worries stifling student opinion writers while they are still learning could dissuade them from going into journalism and, even worse, make them reluctant to read newspapers.

“Or they may descend into the ‘blogosphere’ or the Internet chat room or listserv where opinions are cheap and not well-supported,” said Fiske, who is a senior editorial writer at The Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y. 

Knight also expressed concern with attempts to censor student opinion writers. He said it is better for students to learn the “consequences of impolite speech” than for them to be prevented from making it.

After all, Knight said, it is not as though students are openly advocating violence, and even controversial opinions can lead to constructive discussions.

“I’ve been reading personal columns for 25 years, and you don’t see students saying ‘rise up and take over the school,’” Knight said. “They’re just writing about issues that kids have.”

Writing for their community

Manuel said she writes editorials because she wants to give students what they want.

“Kids aren’t going to want to read a front page story about a chess tournament,” Manuel said. “They want real life issues, stuff that’s really going on.”

She said by allowing free expression in student editorials, administrators let student journalists provide their classmates with a forum that hallway gossip prevents — fact-based discussion.

“[Administrators] thought by taking our papers away, so people couldn’t read them, it would make everything better,” Manuel said. “But it made everything worse because those who had read it were exaggerating what it said.”

Manuel, a rising senior, said she will not be returning to the Spotlight staff in the fall. She said she had to give up journalism to focus on her schoolwork and other extracurricular activities, but regrets not being able to be on staff next year to help ensure students’ opinions are heard. 

Because for some students, Manuel said, the newspaper is the one place where their opinions are their own.

“At home, some students can’t have an opinion because their parent may have a certain view and they’re expected to have that view too,” Manuel said. “At school it’s just like a regular adult newspaper, instead it’s in our community.”