Give Winston Rogers an ‘F’ in Civics but an ‘A’ in Candor

Missouri high school principal Winston Rogers has made an invaluable contribution to the advancement of student journalism. By censoring it.

You see, Rogers, the principal of St. Louis-area Timberland High School, has dropped all pretext that censorship of students’ journalistic work is about anything except – well, censorship.

For decades, school administrators and their special-interest lobbies have managed to stall reforms – in the courts and in the legislatures – toward protecting students and teachers against retaliation for what is published in student newspapers.

Their refrain is always the same: “Why, we administrators have nothing against free speech and the First Amendment – we’re just concerned educators, and we need to review students’ work before it is published so we can teach sound journalism.”

This explanation has always sounded fishy. Few high-school principals have ever taken a journalism course, yet they frequently exercise their “super-editor” authority to overrule (and intimidate and fire) trained journalism teachers with superior expertise.

Now along comes Principal Rogers who, bless him, single-handedly exposes “the big lie” so carefully constructed by the school administrators’ lobby.

When Rogers censored the latest edition of the Timberland Wolf’s Howl – a paper named one of best in the nation in 2007, the year before administrators started asserting prior-review authority to censor students’ work – he made no attempt to teach any journalistic lessons at all.

The students submitted their stories for Rogers’ review. He demanded changes. They complied. Then he killed the stories anyway – and refused to say what was wrong with them. Stubbornly, he told the students that “because I say so” was all the justification they deserved.

Needless to say, students learn nothing about journalism by being told, “There’s something wrong with what you wrote, but I won’t tell you what it is.”

After the students talked to an attorney and provided Rogers with legal authority, he finally did relent and told them he yanked their stories about tattooing because children under 18 cannot get tattooed without parental consent (a fact pointed out in the stories).

Let’s forget for a moment that the explanation is nonsensical (kids under 18 can’t buy guns without parental consent either, but surely “Editor-in-Chief Rogers” would have let students write about hunting). What is more significant is the way Rogers behaved.

Teachers who are interested in improving their students’ work give them feedback. Rogers gave his students the back of his hand. He cared about one thing: keeping some sorehead who thinks student newspapers should cover nothing more substantive than “School Spirit Week” from ringing his telephone.

All censorship always fails, and this failure was especially spectacular – for Principal Rogers and for all principals who rely on the political cover of “the big lie.” No more. That cover has been blown for good.

Censorship is not about teaching and it never has been. Censorship is simply bullying, and like all bullying, it will persist until decent people stand up, look the bully in the eye, and say, “Enough.”