Wisconsin administrators impose prior review after news magazine's story on sexual assault

WISCONSIN — Student journalists are petitioning their superintendent, asking him to reverse prior review guidelines created in response to the student news magazine’s article about sexual assault.

In the February issue of the Cardinal Columns, editor-in-chief Tanvi Kumar wrote a feature story, titled “The Rape Joke,” sharing the stories of three female students who have been sexually assaulted. The magazine changed the students’ names to protect their confidentiality.

Fond Du Lac High School Principal Jon Wiltzius shared the new guidelines with the magazine’s staff Monday. The guidelines allow Wiltzius to review school-sponsored publications before print and publication, which Kumar and the staff believe is harmful.

“The press has so much power — the power to speak up, to heal and to portray really powerful messages,” Kumar said. “And as journalists, we can’t reach our full potential if one body, an authority is trying to limit this power.”

Wiltzius may censor content that “substantially interfere(s) with the educational process, educational environment, or rights of other students, or materials that may be reasonably perceived to associate the school with any position other than neutrality on matters of political controversy.”

According to the policy, the principal may refuse to publish materials that are considered “poorly written, inadequately researched, false, defamatory or libelous, vulgar or profane, unsuitable for immature audiences, or biased or prejudiced.” Students were also informed Tuesday that administrators must approve Tweets they post to the magazine’s account.

Kumar said these are all far too vague.

“There’s a lot of just negative adjectives, and if any of the stories fall in either one of those categories, it can essentially be thrown out without any explanation or without any debate,” she said.

Fond Du Lac School District policy 9.1052, which was adopted in 1988, dictates that publications “shall be subject to school guidelines as determined by the principal.” The new policy simply puts these guidelines in place after years of having none, Wiltzius said, adding that he would try to work with students instead of just pulling articles in their entirety.

Wiltzius said the story about sexual assault, as well as an editorial informing students of their rights to not stand during the Pledge of Allegiance, sparked the need for the guidelines.

“With the most recent publication of the Cardinal Columns, there were a couple of questionable articles based on their pictures (and) language that raised some red flags, and it was determined that guidelines needed to be developed,” he said.

He cited a picture on page 2 of the issue that showed a girl “it appears is not clothed” lying down covered by a white piece of paper. “The perception that could be taken from that is certainly not one we would want coming from school-published documents,” Wiltzius said.

Kumar said administrators also expressed concern in their discussions that she skewed the statistical results of the magazine’s school-wide survey that found that 80 percent of students had heard a rape joke in the past month. She said administrators called the statistic “too extreme.”

The survey questioned the same amount of freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors and equal numbers of males and females, Kumar said. She defended the sample as “extremely representative” of the student body as a whole.

Wiltzius said he didn’t know whether students have the constitutional right to freedom of the press. As established in Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” However, a 1988 ruling, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, curtailed some of those rights, finding that schools may censor school-sponsored publications, such as those produced by a class, when the speech is inconsistent with the school’s educational mission.

Wednesday, students met with Superintendent James Sebert and asked that he consider making the guidelines more specific.

“And I asked him if he would consider, instead of having just him or the principal have the final say in what get’s published, if they could have a panel so at least it’s more than just one person’s veto,” Kumar said. “But … he had no intention of conceding anything at that point.”

Despite having met with Wiltzius on Monday and Sebert on Wednesday, Kumar said she still doesn’t have a lot of answers about what prompted the new guidelines.

“I never really understood what they were hoping to accomplish by doing this or what their reason was behind it, so I guess I would like to know as much as anybody else,” she said.

Kumar said she decided to write the story after hearing “truly atrocious jokes,” noticing the behavior of some of her peers and seeing “a blind eye turned by the administration” regarding Twitter accounts poking fun at rape. People needed to hear the stories of the three girls who were sexually abused, she said.

“We are so saturated in a society that tolerates and even condones objectification of women and sexualizes them to be less than human beings,” Kumar said. “I think a lot of that … contributes to rape jokes and rape culture, and it’s not something that I could see going under the radar anymore.”

Barbara Benish, executive secretary of the Northeastern Wisconsin Scholastic Press Association, said Kumar’s story was an “outstanding example of high school journalism” that will certainly win some awards.

“This story should be celebrated,” Benish said. “This was an excellent example of student writing. I would have been delighted to see this writing in a college-level student. For a high school student to get it, I mean, she really didn’t do anything wrong.”

Kumar called the reaction to her story “exceedingly positive,” noting that several students and even a teacher came to her to share their own stories of sexual assault. She said if she wanted to write a follow-up to the article, she fears “it would most definitely be squashed under the new policy.”

Wiltzius said not everyone agreed with the “manner in which this information was presented,” but said he hadn’t received any complaints.

Benish said she understands why administration wouldn’t want to admit that sexual assault is happening in the school district, “But let’s face it. It’s happening in every school district. It’s happening in every college. My god it’s even happening in the military.”

Staff writer Caitlyn Oestreich said that she worries the magazine will become boring and that fewer people will read it if hard-hitting stories are all censored.

“I fear that we’re going to be — if this policy goes though — that we’re going to be terrified of what we want to write,” Oestreich said.

The Cardinal Columns has published stories about bomb threats, school store thefts and a gay student coming out without problems, Oestreich said, “but this one, which actually helped the students, got a call.”

“If students can get away with saying rape jokes, then why can’t we get away with saying these are wrong?” Oestreich said. “We should be stopping these if there’s a problem.”

Benish said she hopes students won’t shy away from covering hard topics. Kumar has already seen the effects of the policy. She said her staff is “discouraged.”

The highly positive reaction from the student body in response to the most recent issue initially inspired her staff to write more hard-hitting articles.

“Some of the topics that we’ve chosen for our next issue are going to be edgy, are going to press some buttons,” Kumar said. “And as of right now, a lot of students don’t feel like they should be writing those because they’re like what’s the point of writing them if it’s going to get censored anyways?”

The students started a petition on Change.org to raise awareness of the new guidelines. As of Wednesday night, the petition had more than 1,650 signatures.

By Lydia Coutré, SPLC staff writer. Contact her by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 126.