Ill. school board imposes directive for student newspaper to use courtesy titles in stories

ILLINOIS — Students at Harrisburg High School, in Harrisburg,Ill., are forced to use courtesy titles in editorial and opinion content in thestudent newspaper when referring to faculty, staff or members of the schoolboard after the Board of Education imposed a new directive last week.

“The school board’s concern is with content, so this is a reaction tocontent they didn’t like,” said Purple Clarion adviser Cathy Wall.”They felt that the students had been disrespectful to their new principal, andso they were trying to make their editorial comments more respectful by addingMr. and Mrs.”

Last month, the school board told the students that they must use courtesytitles when referring to members of the school community in all sections of thenewspaper, following an editorial that criticized the school principal in theDec. 15 issue of the Clarion. After students and Wall appeared at aschool board meeting last week, the rule was amended to affect only editorialand opinion content.

Harrisburg Community Unit 3 Superintendent Dennis Smith said the editorialwas “disrespectful to the principal in content and attitude” and believed theschool board was prompted to create the rule because of “the perceiveddisrespect of the students’ principal in how she was addressed.”

“When the adviser informed the Board that some newspapers make an editorialdecision to use so-called courtesy titles in editorial and opinion pieces only,the Board amended their directive to do that, which the adviser said wasacceptable,” Smith said. “In other words, the Board found a common ground whichwould meet their expectations and stay within writing guidelines.”

This rule contradicts the Associated Press Stylebook, a referencefor writers, which states that courtesy titles are only to be used “in directquotations or in other special situations.” While most news sources follow APstyle guidelines, Smith said he was told by Wall that it is “an acceptablepractice in major newspapers.”

Senior Molly Williams believes there is more behind the new directive thanmeets the eye.

“When we went to the school board meeting and we tried to get them torevoke the directive, they basically came out and said that it was about contentand that they didn’t like what we were writing,” said Williams, an editorof the Purple Clarion. “I know they are just putting this up as a front,this whole Mr. and Mrs. thing. I know they are just doing it for a frontbecause they haven’t ever really liked what we have written about them. It’s almost like they can’t take constructive criticism well.”

Wall said members of the school board were “disrespectful” to the studentsduring last week’s meeting, and the students are “just angry at this point andtime.””Changing what page it appears on doesn’t change anything,” Wallsaid.

The upcoming January issue will include courtesy titles within the opinionand editorial articles, and both Wall and Williams feel the school board iscensoring the publication’s content.

“I feel that they are trying to censor what we write. I really do,”Williams said. “I feel that they are trying to get us to stop writing aboutthem.”

However, Smith does not believe this is an act of censorship.

“The adviser said no disrespect is intended in using last names,” Smithsaid. “The Board is asking students to show respect. Thus, we are arguing form,not content. If no opinion or position is being banned I don’t see what is beingcensored.”

An editorial explaining the students’ experience at the school boardmeeting will appear in the issue, along with an editor’s note explaining thechange in style in the opinion and editorial articles. The editorial expressesthe students’ “concern that while they are being told to use courtesy titles,they are being treated without courtesy,” Wall said.

Williams said the editorial is about respect.

“If they want respect, they should respect us,” she said. “We (also) have afeature article about respect (in the issue).” Wall said she has no choicebut to enforce the new rule, even though she doesn’t agree with it.

“I have been directed as an employee of the district to see that thathappens,” Wall said, “so we don’t really have much of a choice at thispoint in time because if we don’t (use courtesy titles), I would be consideredinsubordinate.”

Williams said she does not agree with using the titles but understands thather adviser must follow the directive from the school board.

“I feel that it is ridiculous, but we really don’t have a choicesince it is a directive,” Williams said. “She (Wall) is telling us to do this,so we don’t want them to fire her because she is an amazing woman, and sheis an amazing teacher, and we could not do this really without her.”