Silencing student voices hurts education, democracy

Students who work on high school media learn to think critically, research topics, conduct interviews, write clearly for an audience and work together as a team. In schools with strong journalism programs, they also learn how a free and responsible press can work to improve their school communities, to inform, influence and entertain.

The highly publicized suspension of a journalism teacher and a growing number of school censorship cases prompted a coalition of 16 state and national organizations today to urge parents and others to rally behind students who, under the guidance of a qualified journalism educator, seek to practice journalism at school and learn the valuable lessons it teaches.

The group’s concern arose when the East Allen County (Ind.) Schools suspended and then transferred newspaper adviser Amy Sorrell to a new school after she allowed a student’s column supporting tolerance of gays to run without administrative approval, even though the district had not followed a policy requiring total prior review. School officials gave her an unpaid five-day suspension and say Sorrell will not teach journalism in her new school.

The situation Sorrell and her students face is becoming increasingly common, those working with high school media say. An Ohio principal pulled a column in his school’s student newspaper when it criticized the football team and coaching decisions and added an administrator untrained in journalism education as an additional adviser for the publication.

A student editor in Texas filed a formal complaint against his administrator for prohibiting distribution of his high school paper that contained articles on sexually transmitted diseases. A Florida high school principal demanded student newspaper staff members physically cut out an article from every issue of the paper before distribution because it reported an achievement gap in state standardized test scores between white and minority students at his school, a story the students obtained by searching public records.

In Washington, Michigan, Minnesota, Idaho and elsewhere, advisers are threatened with job loss and newspapers face censorship or threatened closure even though research shows stifling student speech does not follow the mission of public schools.

“No advocate or practitioner of prior review or restraint has yet provided substantial evidence that this is an educationally sound practice,” said Journalism Education Association Scholastic Press Rights Commission chair John Bowen. “Journalism educators are charged with helping students learn critical thinking and reasoning. Prior review only blocks that growth in students and interferes with the public’s right to be accurately and truthfully informed.”

This coalition of educators and journalists believes public schools should model democratic principles by providing a forum where student voices can be heard. This forum can be a newspaper or other student media where students, under the guidance of a trained adviser, determine content. School administrators, who govern the school community and are primary news sources, should not control the content of school media, the group believes.

The group stresses the need for policies that reject prior review because less offensive and more effective, democratic ways exist to keep student journalists on a responsible track. A policy that allows students to think for themselves supports a long list of educational values:

– It shows students their ideas matter and empowers them to make a difference in solving problems in their school and community;

– It emphasizes core ethical and character values such as respect, caring, self-control, honesty, patience, cooperation, perseverance and effort;

– It allows them, under the coaching and support of a trained teacher/adviser, to practice the democratic principles they learn in government and social studies classes;

– It instills in students the values of democracy, including how to express themselves in effective ways and be tolerant of views with which they disagree.

Some administrators understand the value of operating under such a policy. One of these is Franklin McCallie, retired 22-year high school principal and former JEA Administrator of the Year. He said he saw how well this operated in Kirkwood (Mo.) High School when he was there. “Just about the time some educators get close to real education, they close down on their students in order to void the educational process they said they were initiating.” That shouldn’t be the case, McCallie said.

Gene Policinski, vice president and executive director of the Nashville-based First Amendment Center and a former professional journalist, believes censorship issues affecting high school journalists and advisers need to be the concern of every citizen.

“You can’t teach values and the necessary role of a free press in an environment in which there is no journalism program or in which student voices are subject to heavy-handed censorship by administrators that we never would tolerate in our society outside of a schoolhouse,” Policinski said.

Parents, school board members, teachers, administrators and concerned community members need to be sure their student publications provide forums for student expression so that kind of learning takes place, coalition members agree.

“Every year, the Student Press Law Center hears from hundreds of high school journalists and their advisers who are being threatened with censorship for simply reporting the truth. Our schools teach troubling lessons, about journalism and about democracy, when we allow that censorship to occur,” said Mark Goodman, director of the SPLC in Arlington, Va.

Contact Candace Perkins Bowen, or 330-672-8297 or any of the representatives listed at the bottom.

Organizations supporting this statement are:
Candace Perkins Bowen, Director, Center for Scholastic Journalism, Kent State University,
Warren Watson, Director, J-Ideas, Ball State University,
Steve O’Donoghue, Director, California Scholastic Journalism Initiative,
Jack Dvorak, Director, High School Journalism Institute, Indiana University,
Diana Hadley, Executive Director, Indiana High School Press Association,
David Adams, Director, Office of Indiana University Student Media,
Linda S. Puntney, Executive Director, Journalism Education Association, Kansas State University,
John Bowen, Chair, Scholastic Press Rights Commission, Journalism Education Association,
Cheryl Pell, Executive Director, Michigan Interscholastic Press Association, Michigan State University,
John Ullman, Acting Executive Director, National Scholastic Press Association
Wendy W. Wallace, Director, High School Program, The Poynter Institute for Media Studies
Richard Johns, Executive Director, Quill and Scroll Society, University of Iowa
Carol Knopes, Director of Education Projects, Radio & Television News Directors Foundation,
Mark Goodman, Executive Director, Student Press Law Center,
H.L. Hall, Executive Director, Tennessee High School Press Association,
Kathy Schrier, President, Washington Journalism Education Association
Terry Nelson, high school adviser with 31 years of these experiences,