Top programs not immune to prior review

Henry Rome and Seth Zweifler have,between them, picked up just about every honor that a high school journalist cancompete for. They shared theNational Scholastic Press Association’s “Story of the Year”award for a 2008 piece in the Conestoga, Pa., High SchoolSpokedocumenting an illegal sports betting ring run by a classmate. Theirnewspaper’s website was voted one of the top four in the nation by theColumbia Scholastic Press Association — in its first year of operation.And last spring, Henry capped it off by bringing home the Journalism EducationAssociation’s “High School Journalist of the Year” award, theHeisman Trophy of high schoolreporting.Had Henry and Seth piledup this record of achievements in any discipline other than journalism –if they were champion tennis players or debaters or clarinetists — theirwork would be hailed by their school district as an example for young peopleeverywhere. That’s not how it works withjournalism.After Henry and Sethtopped their 2008 achievements with a June 2009 story exposing weaknesses in theschool district’s screening of employees for criminal records,Superintendent Daniel E. Waters responded with new policy directives that assertgreater editorial control over student media. If the superintendent’sproposals take effect, it will become the faculty adviser’s job to preventstudents from publishing anything “in poor taste as a reflection of theschool” (a standard that goes beyond the censorship permissible underPennsylvania Department of Education rules), and all student media will facemandatory prior review byadministrators.The use of priorreview as a retaliatory tactic of intimidation is a depressingly familiarrefrain for those in scholastic journalism. Even though the JEA — the mostknowledgeable professional body — has condemned prior review as an unsoundeducational practice, that has not deterred district after district frominflicting it in response to student journalistic work that takes onuncomfortable issues. This was the fate of adviser Barb Thill’soutstanding program at Illinois’ Stevenson High School. Earlier this year,her district imposed prior review to punish the students and adviser for whatofficials called an insufficiently cautionary package of stories about theincrease in casual “hook-ups” among teens. Thill found theheavy-handed oversight unbearable and stepped down as adviser, as her criticsundoubtedly had hoped.Administrators will argue that theyare merely providing adult training and guidance, just as professional editorswould in the real world. That’s nonsense. No administrator has ever told astudent journalist, “Let’s send out another Freedom-of-Informationrequest so we can confirm that this scandal goes all the way to the top,”and none ever will. There is no “teaching of journalism” going on inthe principal’s office.Theway that Henry and Seth have gone about opposing heavier administrative controlexemplifies their maturity and professionalism, and could serve as a road mapfor anyone in the same situation. They’ve been respectful but forceful indealing with powerful district officials, they’ve engaged allies in thenews media and alumni community, and they’ve kept the debate focused onthe compelling educational policy reasons that favor uncensoredjournalism.Ultimately, the solutionto situations like the one at Conestoga may be a political one. School boardsrespond to the ballot box. Whenthose who’ve benefited from student journalism begin putting censorship onthe public agenda and holding elected board members accountable for bad votes– or better still, running for school board themselves —thenwe’ll see relief for the Henrys and Seths of thefuture.-FrankLoMonte, executive director