Censorship by any other name still smells

George Orwell’s 1984 undoubtedly is required reading for some English underclassmen at Illinois’ Stevenson High School. Those enrolled in the journalism program no longer need to read Orwell’s classic novel – because they are living it.

In Orwell’s post-apocalyptic fable, an oligarchical Party enforces conformity through violent re-education by the Thought Police, and through adherence to a sanitized vocabulary – “Newspeak” – that allows for no subversive concepts. An especially handy Newspeak term, “blackwhite,” is given two meanings: “the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts,” or, more charitably, “a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this.”

The administrators and school board members at Stevenson High School have demonstrated admirable fluency in Newspeak when it comes to their governance of the student newspaper, The Statesman, a formerly outstanding publication now neutered by what the masters of Newspeak insist is not “censorship.”

Listen to the Party line put forth by District School Board Chairman Bruce Lubin in the statement that he read at the board’s December 17 meeting: “The issues presented by the most recent controversies are not, fundamentally, ones of ‘censorship,’ but of helping our students to learn appropriate curricular and journalistic standards.”

“Censor” is one of those charged words, like “bigot,” that produces an instant recoil effect in anyone with a rudimentary civics education. The world is full of bigots, and yet no one has ever called himself one voluntarily. And so it is with censors, who understand at the gut level that being a censor is bad, but are able to face themselves in the mirror by assigning pleasing Newspeak euphemisms to their conduct.

Fortunately, Mr. Lubin is not the authority on the subject. That would be the late Supreme Court Justice Byron White, author of the unabashedly pro-censorship Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision that Mr. Lubin and his Stevenson colleagues have embraced to reduce student journalists’ rights to the bare minimum allowed by law (if not less).

Justice White used the terms “censor,” “censorship” or “censoring” eight times in writing the Hazelwood majority opinion. Indeed, in one of the most famous and oft-quoted lines of his opinion, Justice White unequivocally described what the principal of Hazelwood East High School did in removing articles from the student newspaper as censorship: “It is only when the decision to censor a school-sponsored publication, theatrical production, or other vehicle of student expression has no valid educational purpose that the First Amendment is so directly and sharply implicated as to require judicial intervention to protect students’ constitutional rights” (internal quote marks and brackets omitted).

Now, the folks running Stevenson High School think mighty highly of themselves, but are they seriously trying to tell us they know more First Amendment law than Justice White?

(For good measure, the dissenters in Hazelwood – led by Justice William Brennan, perhaps the foremost First Amendment scholar ever to serve on the Court – used variations of the phrase “censor” 20 more times to characterize the acts of the school district; “brutal censorship,” Justice Brennan called it at one point. Nothing in the dissenting opinion can fairly be held against Mr. Lubin, of course, since it is the District’s position that people should not read things they might find disagreeable.)

Admitting that you have a problem is the first rung on the 12 steps to recovery. When you rely on the authority conferred by the Supreme Court’s Hazelwood decision, you are “censoring,” no matter the comforting Orwell-ism you choose to apply.

There is room for honest, reasonable people to disagree at the margins over the degree of involvement that school administrators should have in students’ publishing decisions. There is no room for honest, reasonable people to disagree that forcing the removal of stories that are not obscene, threatening or otherwise unlawful is “censorship.” Don’t take our word for it – take Justice White’s.