Sometimes a writer summarizes things so beautifully that the best you can do is step out of the way and let that writer’s voice be heard. A group of concerned journalism educators in Missouri has composed a letter of concern that poignantly captures the grinding toll of censorship that is making Missouri’s Timberland High School a miserable place to work and study. (Among Timberland administrators’ bizarre and pointless rules is that student publications be cleansed of any reference to tattooing, including any photo of anyone with a visible tattoo.) We thought you’d enjoy reading this powerful letter in its entirety:
Dear Wentzville School District and Timberland High School administrators:
We are members of the Sponsors of School Publications of Greater St. Louis, a local organization for journalism teachers in the area. We are writing in protest of the censorship that the newspaper and yearbook staffs at Timberland High School under the supervision of Cathy McCandless have received. We think the type of censorship the students have experienced is detrimental to their growth and development as both journalism students and future citizens. It is bad for students.
First of all, allowing students the opportunity to free and responsible speech (and press) encourages tremendous growth in their sense of ownership, their critical thinking skills and their development as responsible citizens. How will they ever be expected to practice all the freedoms the First Amendment promises if they are not allowed to experience those freedoms while they are growing into adulthood? Under the supervision of a strong and knowledgeable adviser, as Cathy McCandless is, students have someone to ensure they are acting in a responsible manner while still making their own decisions. Administrators who micro-manage publications rob journalism students of their very opportunities to learn and grow. They deny students the opportunity to think critically about their own work and to learn from their mistakes. They stifle their creativity and their sense of ownership. It is the best way to encourage mediocrity in a publication. We believe this is a despicable educational practice.
Secondly, to censor students over something as mundane as tattoos is totally inappropriate. Many of our schools have done feature stories on students getting tattoos and sometimes even teachers getting tattoos. In fact, Timberland High School ran a center spread on tattoos three years ago with no detrimental effects to the community. Like it or not, tattoos are part of the culture and ignoring them or forbidding students from photographing them does not make them go away. While there may be some problems associated with tattoos, Cathy’s students had addressed some of those issues in the censored article, which might have also helped students stay informed as they make decisions.
Last of all, we affirm that Cathy McCandless is an expert in her field. She is a knowledgeable and respected member of the scholastic journalism community who keeps abreast of trends and issues in the field. Both of her publications have won local, state and national awards, something of which the district should be very proud. Her work on local, state and national committees as well as her certification as a Master Journalism Educator shows she is perfectly capable of helping students to make wise and responsible decisions about their publications. To treat someone with a masters degree in journalism as if she were an apprentice who needs to have someone else making all the decisions for her publications is insulting and demeaning. In addition to what this says to Cathy, what does it say to her students? Your hard work, your awards and your voice mean nothing to us as District. We implore you to reconsider this policy of censorship against the school publications and urge you to adopt a “no prior review” policy, as Clayton, Rockwood, Ladue and many other schools have done. Many other schools in St Charles County, such as Francis Howell School District do not practice prior review. We also believe Cathy McCandless belongs in a journalism classroom, and that it would be a great loss to the district to lose her in that capacity. You will have a difficult time finding someone else of her caliber to taker her place. We hope you will do what is best for students and find a way to support your journalism program.
The Wentzville School District Board of Education next meets on May 18, and it’s anticipated that concerned students and parents will be there in force. This case is a microcosm of why mandatory prior administrative review, while seemingly harmless as a concept, almost never works in reality. It is simply too tempting for administrators to impose their own personal biases and tastes on the students. Regrettably, the administrators of Timberland High School have made no effort to resist the temptation.