Power of the principal

S.K. Johnson was in a position of power.

As principal at Orange High School in Orange, Calif., Johnson was not happy about this year’s issue of PULP, the school’s annual student-produced magazine.

The cover of the 2009 edition of PULP featured a photo illustration simulating a person’s back tattooed with the magazine’s name and an image of a panther, the school mascot. Johnson said he was afraid the city’s “heavily Hispanic community” might think OHS was a “gangster school.” He said the article “romanticized tattoos,” and felt it needed to convey that “tattoos are forever and while it may be removed, it’s a painful process.”

So Johnson used his power as principal to confiscate all of the nearly 300 copies before students could distribute the magazine. For principals like Johnson, administrative authority sometimes trumps the rights to a free, uncensored student press.

Today, a principal’s power creates an everyday struggle for many student journalists, said Warren Watson, a journalism professor at Ball State University who has conducted several studies on principals’ attitudes toward student media and the First Amendment.

“Everything about being a principal is about control,” Watson said. “And they step a little bit too far when it comes to student press.”

While some principals have taken a hands-off approach with the student media, placing the investigative, editorial power with the budding journalists, others continue to use censorship and prior review as tools to control the high school press.

“There are certainly administrators who care; they’re the ones who encourage their kids to do a good job,” said John Bowen, a Kent State University professor and chair of the Journalism Education Association’s Press Rights Commission. “But the ones who don’t care and who say ‘It’s my school,’ think they have to look good above all else, their whole concept is really not based on education but on ‘What power do I have?’”

Crossing the line

In 1988, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier ensured principals retained some power over the student press. Under Hazelwood, high school administrators can censor many school-sponsored publications if they can show a legitimate educational reason for doing so.

But long before the Court’s ruling 21 years ago in Hazelwood, students faced censorship from administrators.

In 1859 Peter Lander became the first documented pupil to be punished for exercising free speech. After calling his principal “Old Jack Silver,” he suffered a whipping for the remark, according to Watson’s most recent study.

The first time a student’s battle for free expression made it to the Supreme Court was over a century later in 1969, when the Court held in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Forty years after the landmark decision that ensured students’ First Amendment rights on campus, Watson said principals turn to Hazelwood before they turn to Tinker, leaving the door open to censor more freely. He noted many principals “think they have the ability to censor for any reason.”

“Most of the time principals use Hazelwood to cover a story or stories they don’t believe should be published or are going to create too much controversy within the school district,” he said. “That was not one of the reasons why Hazelwood was formulated.”

But Hazelwood only gives school officials the power to control school-sponsored publications when they have a legitimate pedagogical reason, Watson added. That means schools could censor content officials feel is poorly written or researched, vulgar, unsuitable for the audience, or promotes drugs or alcohol. Since the high court’s decision, six states have passed “anti-Hazelwood” legislation to protect the free expression rights of high school students and prevent principals from turning first to Hazelwood

For Watson, determining when an administrator has crossed the line is easy.

“A principal’s power goes too far when he or she institutes prior review,” he said. “The act of censorship itself, not allowing something to be published, ripping it out of the paper, or not working with the students and the adviser to come up with a reasonable accommodation are all actions that go too far.”

But school districts across the country continue to institute prior review or penalize teachers who refuse to overrule their students’ editorial decisions.

In April, the school board in Harrisburg, Ill., approved a policy that gives Harrisburg High School Principal Karen Crank the final authorization of the student newspaper. The same month, Barbara Thill, the newspaper adviser at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., resigned after a new policy with more official oversight was enacted.

At schools free from prior review, administrators can still wield an iron fist over student publications by using the adviser as a pawn for censorship.

Officials at West Fargo High School in West Fargo, N.D., did not practice prior review over the school’s award-winning paper, the Packer. But they were not happy with several articles the paper’s adviser had allowed the staff to print, according to 286 pages of e-mails obtained by the Forum, the local newspaper, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

In June, West Fargo Principal Gary Clark fired Adviser Jeremy Murphy from his role as the newspaper adviser for what Murphy called a difference in leadership philosophy. School officials only wanted the Packer to cover positive issues, he noted.

“I felt the role of the adviser should be to advise,” Murphy said. “And they felt it should be to control.”

Murphy’s students rallied around him, creating a Facebook page, gaining media attention and writing letters to school board officials in an attempt to have their adviser reinstated. Though officials did not censor the paper’s content, then-Packer co-editor Meagan McDougall said she thinks administrators did not like Murphy’s hands-off approach and desire to leave editorial control with the staff — qualities she fears other advisers might not champion.

In July, a group of about 75 students expressed to the West Fargo School Board the necessity of a student newspaper free from administrative control. Shortly after the students’ comments, the board passed a list of consent items, including the employment of a new adviser to replace Murphy.

In a similar situation in California in 2008, administrators removed Fallbrook High School’s newspaper adviser after he spoke out against the principal’s illegal censorship. Later that year, California enacted Senate Bill 1370, which protects teachers from being punished for protecting students’ speech.

“What saddens me is that you still have principals trying to exercise prior restraint, trying to retaliate against teachers for just simply doing their job of teaching students to think freely and think critically about issues,” said California State Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco/San Mateo, who authored the bill. “That’s pretty frightening. It’s the arrogance of power that undermines our democracy every time, and it is the arrogance of power that is used to undermine our freedom every time.”

Trend is still toward censorship

High school principals might be becoming more knowledgeable about students’ rights to free speech and free press, according to Watson’s most recent findings. But this increase in pro-First Amendment attitudes is not matched with a decreasing amount of censorship.

“The trend is still toward more censorship,” Watson said, citing recent controversies with high school journalism programs. “It’s a difficult time for student media.”

In 2004, two University of Connecticut faculty members conducted massive research for the Future of the First Amendment study, which Watson said showed that principals were prone to censor student media. Roughly 75 percent of principals surveyed in 2004 said they felt high school students should not be able to report on controversial topics without the consent of administrators.

To follow up, Watson conducted a similar survey in 2007 with a smaller sample, finding that as a whole, the group of principals’ attitude towards censorship of student speech was getting stronger.

In 2009, Watson contacted 5,000 high school administrators across the country to gauge how they view student expression. From early indications, principals seem to be less likely to censor than in the past five years, said Watson, who is still collecting the data.

Two high school journalists in Arizona are battling a case of censorship they say shows a lack of respect toward the students’ right to a free press.

Thunderbird High School Principal Matt Belden pulled a story that presented some critical views of the district’s teacher assessment testing before the May edition of the student newspaper, the Challenge, went to press.

Then-Challenge Editor Vaughn Hillyard and another staff member appealed the decision to the superintendent, who upheld the censorship because she felt the story was biased. 

Hillyard said the article was accurate and fair, and should have been published. They presented multiple views and conducted a survey of more than half the school’s teachers.

When principals censor for reasons that are not protected under Tinker and Hazelwood, it can have a devastating effect on the school’s program, Watson said.

“When it crosses the line, it violates the trust that the adviser and the students have with the principal about covering legitimate stories,” he said. 

“It devalues the work of students, and it intimidates them to the point where they may not want to engage in another fight with the administration.”

Watson said one of the worst “tragedies” as a result of Hazelwood is an increasing number of students who self-censor to avoid a dispute or confrontation with an administrator. The serious consequence is failing to produce provocative journalism because of a fear of being censored, he added.

Debra Munk, principal of Rockville High School in Rockville, Md., said the principal’s duty is to ensure what the student newspaper plans to print is appropriate for the specific community before the paper goes to press.

“Ultimately, the buck stops with me,” said Munk, who with her students shared the 2008 Courage in Student Journalism Award for a series of stories about gang violence in local schools. 

“If something gets out of the school that’s inappropriate, I’m the one that’s held responsible for it. But I think that doesn’t became a problem when you develop a good rapport with both your newspaper and yearbook sponsors and students.”

Munk said the newspaper’s adviser brings her an article if he feels it could be controversial or embarrass a student or teacher. Because she has a trusting relationship with the adviser, Munk said she only sees roughly 5 percent of the content before publication. But without faith in the adviser’s judgment, things could be different. 

“If I had a brand new sponsor who I hadn’t worked with a number of years, hadn’t worked through some touchy things with, then I probably would do more prior review until that person got a sense of where I’m coming from,” she said.

Yee, the California state senator, said administrators should consider the effect censorship has on students’ perceptions of free speech and press.

“We send our children to school hoping that teachers will teach [First Amendment ideals] and they will learn those concepts and those ideas,” he said. 

“When you have someone like an administrator basically flaunting the First Amendment and suggesting to our children that it is OK for someone in charge to willy nilly, to simply suspend an individual’s First Amendment rights, then we all need to resoundingly say ‘No’ to administrators and those actions. For those students to see that person of trust, that person of authority, break the law and get away with it is very dangerous.”

The ‘biggest fans’ of students

When a group of parents complained to the Lake Oswego School Board in Lake Oswego, Ore., about the high school’s newspaper, they asked the board to take the reins from the students, naming the school’s principal as publisher and the teacher-adviser as editor.

Lakeridge High School Principal Mike Lehman was not comfortable with the request.

“I was personally a little concerned with some of the proposed roles and responsibilities that it appeared some people wanted me to play in that process,” Lehman said.

The principal of 20 years said he has high confidence in the paper’s staff and the adviser, adding he is “one of the biggest fans of our student writers” and is usually “one of the first to read the Newspacer when it comes out.” He said he appreciates the school board keeping him in his current role and leaving the editorial control with student editors.

Lehman is one of a handful of high school principals who voice their positive support of the student press.

Mel Riddile, the associate director for high school services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said the main focus for most principals is ensuring the school is a safe, inviting environment where students can express their views — including through the student newspaper.

“A lot of principals around the country do have the right of prior review, but many do not exercise it and prefer not to exercise it,” Riddile said. “Principals typically don’t want to wade into this area, and they do so reluctantly.”

Tim Dorway, principal of Mayo High School in Rochester, Minn., and a former journalism adviser, said he feels like the minority when it comes to his views on students’ free expression rights.

“I really feel that student publications are student publications, and they need to reflect the voice of the students in the school and not the adults in the school,” he said. “Students need to have a place for that voice, and the student newspaper is a perfect place for that.”

Dorway, who is also on the board of directors of the National Scholastic Press Association, said many principals do not deal with First Amendment issues as a classroom teacher and then are unfamiliar with their rights as administrators.

Yee said he believes teacher and administrator training programs must spend more time addressing students’ First Amendment rights. Teachers should receive significant training on students’ free speech issues before being granted administrative credentials, he added.

David Clark, principal of Columbus North High School in Columbus, Ind., said officials who lack knowledge of student press law should develop a close, trusting relationship with the adviser and staff.

“I trusted that they knew the law and they knew what they were doing,” he said, noting they are the ones educated to make journalistic decisions. “I trust them and don’t really step in a whole lot.”

In 2006, Clark was awarded the Courage in Student Journalism Award —?presented by the Student Press Law Center, the Newseum and the National Scholastic Press Association —?for defending students’ editorial decision to print an article about oral sex to angry parents and community members.

Kit Moran, who has been principal at Dexter High School in Michigan for three years, said he does not like to use the word “power” when referring to a principal’s authority. Principals need to remind themselves they are not the editor of the newspaper, he said.

“It’s the student paper not the mouthpiece for the school district, much like a city newspaper … is not the mouthpiece for the local village,” Moran said. 

“When you hand over that feeling of ownership to kids, they create an incredible product.”

Watson said he feels censorship of high school publications has not decreased significantly, though his studies show principals’ knowledge of student press rights has slightly improved.

Principals who stand up for student journalists —?instead of belittling them — would be a “great service” to high schools, he said.

“A student media program is not going to be successful without the backing of a principal,” Watson said. “If a principal feels that he or she can censor, it’s not going to give students a complete media experience. They’ll never really learn what it’s like to practice journalism.”

Yee agreed censorship takes away the practical opportunities a student newspaper grants high school students.

“The principal is giving students an opportunity to vigorously discuss issues and learn how to do that, and as you begin to censor something, you don’t award these students the opportunity to examine ideas and to challenge kids to write about ideas,” Yee said. “When working on student publications, they have a right to write about what they understand, what they believe, and what they want to report on.”

Dorway said his time spent as an adviser shaped his belief as a principal that student publications are not for pictures of the Homecoming queen or boasting about the school’s numerous achievements. 

Instead, the student media should question authority on tough issues, discuss ways the school can improve and share stories about what actually goes on in students’ daily lives. Otherwise, it’s not a true reflection of that school, he added.

“I used to tell my kids, ‘Journalists don’t tell people what to think, they give people things to think about,’” Dorway said. 

“If our school publications are doing that, and they’re creating discussion that is meaningful to students, why would we want to take that away?”