WISCONSIN — Students and teachers at Fond du Lac High School are urging administrators to rethink a decision to impose prior review guidelines on student publications after the student magazine wrote an article about sexual assault.
Students plan to attend tonight’s school board meeting to express their concerns. Last week, teachers in the English department at Fond du Lac issued a joint statement in support of maintaining student publications as an open forum for student expression.
The new guidelines, which allow the principal to review content before it goes to print, were created in response to stories in the Cardinal Columns’ February issue. The cover story of the student magazine detailed anonymous students’ experiences with sexual assault, the prevalence of jokes about rape at the school and information on how to get help.
That story, and an editorial that informed students of their rights to remain seated during the Pledge of Allegiance, prompted administrators to create the guidelines, Principal Jon Wiltzius has said.
Tanvi Kumar, Cardinal Columns editor-in-chief and author of “The Rape Joke,” said Cardinal Columns staff members, teachers and supporters will use the comment period of the meeting to raise their concerns. Kumar said the newsmagazine’s staff reached out to the school board multiple times to try to get the issue on the agenda, but it was never added.
“I was really hoping that we’d get, like, the other side of the story today, because it’d be the school board,” Kumar said. “But I was really shocked to find out they didn’t put it on the agenda.”
School board members couldn’t be reached for comment, despite numerous attempts. Fond du Lac school board member Susan Jones called Kumar’s piece “really well done,” according to The Fond du Lac Reporter.
“This is what democracy is all about, this is America and these kids are pretty mature,” Jones told The Fond du Lac Reporter. “It’s a big issue in the high school and we should all be concerned about what is going on.”
Kumar said the students plan to emphasize how the prior review policy will affect their work.
“I think that we know how important free speech is,” Kumar said. “I think we know that we as journalists cannot reach our full potential unless we have the ability to write cutting-edge pieces that are not necessarily just ducks and bunnies, but actual news stories that people care about. And I think that a lot of people are very upset by the fact that that has been jeopardized at this point.”
Vince Filak, an associate professor of journalism at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, is among those upset by the situation and plans to attend the school board meeting in support of the students.
For administrators to try to stop students from reporting on the important, but unpleasant stories, is offensive to him and “offensive to anybody who values free speech and free press,” he said. The guidelines send a message to the students that they shouldn’t bother doing good journalism that isn’t positive.
“I think that’s a horrible message to send to people, especially so early in their journalistic careers, because journalism is messy,” Filak said. “Journalism is not polite, journalism is not nice all the time. But the most important stories are the ones where we have to take a look at something that might be viewed as unpleasant to a lot of people and we have to do it in an honest and unflinching way.”
Kumar did exactly that, he said. Filak praised her article as incredibly important and well-done.
“The research that went into that was impeccable and the interviewing that went on was top notch,” Filak said.
In their statement in support of an open forum for student expression at Fond du Lac High School, English Department teachers called the guidelines a “clear path toward censorship.” The guidelines “drastically alter the relationship between school publications and the administration and break sharply with roughly 100 years of district precedent regarding such publications,” the statement said.
The teachers also praised Kumar’s work.
“We believe that the story, itself, stands as an exemplar of high-quality, responsible journalism that has helped countless readers feel supported, speak up, seek help, and come together in a way that has undoubtedly resulted in a more positive environment in our school. We need more stories like this one, not fewer.”
Filak doesn’t see any action being taken at the meeting, he said, “But I think that if anything can happen where we can continually push and say ‘no, we’re not going to let this die, this is not going to go away quietly,’ then I think it’s worth doing.”
The students are handling the situation a “heck of a lot better” than administrators, Filak said. Administrators are being outplayed by the students, who he said are doing a “phenomenal” job of continuing to press the issue.
“I’d like to see the administration actually rise to the level of students and begin some level of discourse,” Filak said.
Wiltzius said in a previous interview he didn’t know if students had a constitutional right to freedom of the press. He was not in the office today and couldn’t be reached for comment. Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) established that students do not “shed their constitutional rights of freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” A 1988 ruling curtailed some of those rights. Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier found that schools may censor school-sponsored publications, such as those produced by a class, when the speech doesn’t align with the school’s educational mission.
In a video aired Friday by Fondy Today, a student broadcast publication at the high school, Wiltzius said there were some “potentially questionable pieces of wording” in the article that didn’t have to be there.
“That’s where a guideline like this, where if I can see that before it goes out I can try to help and say ‘mmm, can you just tweak this a little so it’s not so edgy or abrasive to some,’” Wiltzius told Fondy Today.
Kumar said she’s been getting a lot of mixed signals from administrators and she isn’t sure where to go from here. She’s hoping the school board meeting will give her and the staff some indication of where to go next.
English department teachers urged the superintendent and school board to “strengthen their support of independent student publications at Fond du Lac High School that may serve as open forums for student expression by either abandoning the new guidelines or by putting them on hold until new guidelines or a new policy may be drafted in collaboration with the students, community, and experts in the field.”
Unfortunately, there are more people censoring than there are people who can fight back, Filak said.
“So hopefully the students are going to get the opportunity to really fend this off and get back to the business that they want which is — they don’t want to be in the middle of this,” Filak said. “They want to be putting out their newspaper in a censorship-free environment.”
Contact Coutré by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 126.