'Statesman' staff members speak out against censorship at board meeting

ILLINOIS — Staff members of Stevenson High School’sStatesman attended the school’s Board of Education meeting Thursday nightto speak out against the ongoing censorship of their high schoolnewspaper.

Administrators at Stevenson High School blocked an article addressingprescription drugs from the Dec. 18 issue of the paper. The article discussedthe drugs and their side effects, and included the story of a female studentopenly discussing her use of birth control pills, according to an article in theLincolnshire Review. In place of the article, the newspaper will includea blank page and an editor’s note of explanation.

In a publicly released statement, Board President Bruce Lubin said thatthough the article addressed a newsworthy topic, the administration was notwilling to publish personal medical information about a student.

“We do not believe that it is appropriate for a school district to makepublic this type of confidential personal information about an identifiedstudent, by disclosing it in a school-sponsored newspaper,” he said.

The school’s refusal to print the article discussing birth control followsan extended battle over the content of the November issue of theStatesman. The administration objected to articles addressing shopliftingand teen pregnancy, and would not allow the staff to print an article that usedanonymous sources to discus the school’s substance abuse policy. The studentswere then required to publish a paper with only administration-approvedcontent.

“It’s bad teaching and it’s bad journalism,” Statesman Editor-in-Chief Pamela Selman toldthe Lincolnshire Review. “A school administration cannot simply censorwhatever they want to as long as they come up with a reason.”

“The staff feels that our rights, while limited, have certainly beenviolated,” she continued. “We are at a breaking point. We just can’t continue tooperate as student journalists.”

Gabriel Fuentes, an attorney with Jenner & Block in Chicago who isworking with the students, said they want the administration to exerciseonly clear, constitutional controls over the student publication.

“[The students] want the school district to stop regulating the content ofthe paper in a way that is not consistent with Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier andthe First Amendment,” he said. “They want any type of review or restraints to beconstitutionally valid and to be clearly explained to them as to what the legalbasis is.”

Going forward, Fuentes said all options for dealing with censorship of theStatesman are on the table.

“The students have conveyed to the school district through legal counselthat the school district’s censorship of the article this week and the schooldistrict’s action of the last month compelling the students to publish a paperthat wasn’t their work product are unacceptable,” he said.The students andthe administration are disagreeing about the level of authority that isappropriate for the school to exercise over the paper’s content, Fuentessaid.

“It’s pretty transparent that the agenda of the Stevenson administration isto prevent anything remotely controversial or negative from appearing in theStatesman,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student PressLaw Center.

“First, the journalists are told they can’t use anonymous sources, thenthey are told they can’t write about named students,” he said. “The decisionscoming out of this administration are absolutely irrational, and it’s time forthe school board to step in and impose some sane standards that give thestudents fair notice of what is and isn’t allowed.”

For More Information:

  • High school journalists ordered to print administration-approved newspaper News Flash, 11/25/2009