We are accustomed to hearing advocates for the First Amendment say things like this: “We are trying to make the students safe for dealing with ideas and controversy. … The question is ‘how do we make the students safe for controversy,’ not ‘how do we make the ideas safe?'”
But it is eye-opening when those forward-thinking words come from a 12-year veteran county school board member, as they did last week when School Board President Bill Dussling of Arlington Heights, Illinois, addressed a conference on the future of journalism education.
Dussling was among 50 participants brought together by the McCormick Foundation and its McCormick Freedom Project to formulate model ground rules for the relationship between the student media and school administrators. The need for sensible ground rules was vividly illustrated to those in Illinois by the death spiral of a once-great journalism program at Illinois’ Stevenson High School, which is being suffocated by out-of-control censorship.
Dussling and his co-panelist, Tina Cantrell, principal of Chicago-area John Hersey High School, provided the perspective of administrators whose journalism programs have prospered with a relative hands-off approach. Cantrell, who acknowledged the occasional “how can you let students get away with writing this” e-mail, said her response is simply to pass along the concern to the journalism faculty adviser, so it can be handled by those most knowledgeable.
Cantrell and Dussling are the administrators that every journalism teacher hopes for and every journalism student deserves. They respect the civic and educational value of student journalists’ work — indeed, Dussling said high school reporters at times are the only reporters at his board meetings — and they are living proof that it is possible to have a successful career in education while also allowing students room to publish substantive and at times controversial material.
The refreshing perspective of these administrators was the second-best revelation of the McCormick conference. The first is that one of the student participants, Faique Moqeet of Northside College Prep High School, publishes a column in his student newspaper with the title: “Faique: my life.”
And nobody reading it has been struck blind.