ILLINOIS — Staff members of the student newspaper atStevenson High School in Lincolnshire were told by school administrators Tuesdayto publish a newspaper composed of only administration-approved content. Theissue will be absent stories initially included in the Nov. 20 issue of thepaper that the administration removed following a prior review of thepublication.
Told their grades were dependent on the issue’s distribution, newspaperstaff requested to remove their bylines from the published stories as a sign ofprotest, as well as to include an editors’ note explaining the circumstancesunder which the newspaper was published. The administration refused bothrequests, according to newspaper staff members.
“We are dealing with a school administration that is completely out ofcontrol and is clearly willing to stoop to anything to shut down independentjournalism,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press LawCenter.
LoMonte said the administrators’ actions show a willingness to jeopardizethe students’ chances to attend college.
“It’s truly sad that Stevenson High School is run by people whooperate under the principle of ‘what’s the worst thing we can do toour students and get away with it under the law,’ rather than what’sbest for the students’ education,” he said.
The forced publication follows the administration’s refusal to print theNov. 20 Statesmen because of objections over content. The issue began whenStatesmen Editor-in-Chief Pamela Selman submitted for prior review thepaper that included a front-page article discussing the school’ssubstance-abuse (“no use”) contracts, for which the reporter andeditor granted sources anonymity.
Selman told the Student Press Law Center that the number of student leaderswho have broken the contract — meaning they have used drugs or alcohol –appears to have greatly increased, making it a newsworthy topic, but also atopic students would be hesitant to speak about unless they remained nameless.According to the students, the head of the Communications Arts program atStevenson told newspaper staff members if they laid out the paper with thestory, administrators would remove it during prior review and require staffmembers to reveal the names of the anonymous sources.
When staff members chose to remove the article and distribute the issuewith a blank front page, the administrative review board refused to allow theissue to print with the blank space, and objected two other stories — oneregarding teen pregnancy and the other discussing shoplifting — anddirected that the paper not be published with that disputed content.
On Nov. 20, staff members of The Statesman “passed out”non-existent newspapers to students at the entry doors of the school, silentlyprotesting the censorship that initially started when Editor-in-Chief Pam Selmansubmitted a copy of the Nov. 20 issue to an administrative review board forprior review.
James Conrey, director of public information at Stevenson, released astatement Nov. 20 detailing the review board’s reasons for pulling theissue. In it, administrators explained that the newspaper was halted on Nov. 20because the advisers did not think having anonymous sources in an articlediscussing alleged illegal activity was “fit for print.” It alsoexplained that while the advisers gave the student editors the option of holdingthe article until it could be changed, they decided to run a blank cover, whichwas not a suitable solution for administrators.
“A collaborative decision was made by the leaders of the journalismprogram to delay the issue’s publication until the questions about thearticle’s sourcing could be resolved,” the statement said.
The school denied pulling the issue for reasons concerning damaging theschool’s reputation, and did not mention the other two articles inquestion.
“This is nothing but a power game of administrators trying to ‘showthe kids who’s boss,'” LoMonte said. “But what they are about tolearn is that they don’t own this school, the public does, and the publicwill not tolerate the government telling people what they can and can’tsay.”
The students are being represented pro-bono by Chicago attorney GabrielFuentes and his law firm, Jenner & Block LLP, through the SPLC’s volunteerattorney referral network.