McCormick protocol forces schools to confront the educational costs of censorship

On a snowy February day at Chicago’s Cantigny Park, the McCormick Foundation brought together 50 experts — teachers, lawyers, school administrators, students — with a blank easel pad and a mission: to fix the flawed way that schools oversee what students publish.

Far too many school districts impose retaliatory governance policies over student media in crisis-hysteria mode (or punishment mode) without careful deliberation. The result of these ill-considered policies invariably is the opposite of what is intended — more controversy, more wasted time, and more attention to the “negative” stories that the policies are intended to suppress.

The charge from the McCormick Foundation (a philanthrophic funder of many journalism initiatives, including the SPLC) was to come up with a better system, and to arrive at a set of universal guiding principles that should inform any school’s or district’s governance of its student media.

Chicago-based McCormick convened the conference not far (in time or in distance) from the scene of one of the most shameful censorship episodes in American history, Stevenson High School. Administrators at Stevenson destroyed their school’s formerly award-winning journalism program in 2009 with an escalating drumbeat of censorship that included forcing students to put their bylines on stories sanitized by the administration, and to hand-deliver censored newspapers with which they disagreed.

So it was timely and appropriate to call together those concerned for the well-being of student journalism in Chicago, to try to make sure that a tragedy like Stevenson never happens again.

The result of two days of intensive brainstorming at Cantigny appears in McCormick’s newly published, “Protocol for Free & Responsible Student News Media.” (The report, available online now, will be formally released in September in conjunction with Constitution Day.)

Compiled by veteran Illinois journalism educator Randy Swikle, the report begins with a stirring quote from U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow’s 2004 ruling in Dean v. Utica, a case reaffirming that student journalists retain First Amendment rights even when writing for school-funded, on-campus publications:

[I]f the role of the press in a democratic society is to have any value, all journalists – including student journalists – must be allowed to publish viewpoints contrary to those of state authorities without censorship by the authorities themselves. Without protection, the freedoms of speech and press are meaningless and the press becomes a mere channel for official thought.

The report lays out a model of ethical and responsible decision-making for resolving difficult news judgments, as an alternative to coercive school administrator control. It urges administrators to relinquish authoritarian, “because-I-said-so” control over the content of student publications in favor of shared power and shared responsibility: “[T]he practice of prior review tends to be an inconsistent process of micromanagement, controlling the school image, dictating ethics on controversial issues, arbitrary censorship and even intimidation. School authorities often become editors rather than overseers, thereby undermining the responsibility of student editors and their trained journalism teachers.”

Journalism educators don’t get a free pass in the McCormick report. The report admonishes that a failure to steer students away from sensationalistic journalism too often plays into the hands of censors.

There are, unfortunately, businesses with a discernible anti-student agenda (and no journalism expertise) marketing so-called “model” journalism governance policies that tilt lopsidedly toward heavy-handed control, ignoring the detrimental impact on learning. The McCormick protocol actually is a model policy. It incorporates the input of the people who know journalism education best. It is not driven by an overriding imperative to minimize controversy — that is a valid consideration, but it is not an educational imperative, and when minimizing controversy conflicts with providing a sound educational experience, then minimizing controversy must yield.

But even if school districts do not adopt the conclusions of the McCormick report, the report sets forth a thought process that is designed to force consideration of all of the consequences of enacting or revising a publications policy. This is the first time any institution has authoritatively captured in one place all of the trade-offs involved in setting standards for student publications.

If the McCormick protocol can prompt better-educated and more substantive conversations — if publications policies can be enacted after informed deliberation — then the outcomes will almost necessarily be better. And McCormick will have contributed greatly to the advancement of a safer climate for students, and teachers, to practice their craft.