Fond du Lac principal censors student news magazine's censorship photo illustration

WISCONSIN — The photo accompanying a story about a Wisconsin high school’s new prior review guidelines is being censored under those very guidelines, which were established in response to the publication’s last issue featuring a story about sexual assault.

The photo, which depicts a male with duct tape that says “principal approved?” taped over his mouth, is the main art for a story about the controversy created in the wake of prior review guidelines put in place earlier this semester. It’s the first issue being published under the new rules.

“It wasn’t meant to be disrespectful to the administration, but that is a very common way to depict censorship,” said Tanvi Kumar, the Cardinal Columns editor-in-chief.

Fond du Lac Principal Jon Wiltzius said he wasn’t sure what the message was with that image.

“The lack of understanding of knowing what the message was made it very clear that that wasn’t something that we should print in our newspaper,” Wiltzius said.

The story lays out both sides of the argument and lets readers decide if the new guidelines amount to censorship, Kumar said. Wiltzius hasn’t raised concerns about the article, she said.

A response to an article about sexual assault in the February issue of the Cardinal Columns, Fond du Lac High School’s new guidelines allow the principal to censor content that “substantially interfere(s) with the educational process, educational environment, or rights of other students.” The principal may also refuse to publish materials considered to be “poorly written, inadequately researched, false, defamatory or libelous, vulgar or profane, unsuitable for immature audiences, or biased or prejudiced.”

In addition to the photo, Wiltzius told the students, via their adviser, to withhold the name of a student going through an expulsion hearing and remove the word “faggot” from art accompanying a story about cyberbullying.

Wiltzius said the requested changes aren’t based on his personal opinion, but rather on the guidelines provided for him to use.

He noted he would also like to see a courtesy title in front of all staff names as a “piece of respect for the adults in our building.”

“I do understand after talking with their adviser that may not be how journalists write…,” Wiltzius said. “But this is not private-sector journalism. This is a school and we just want to make sure that the level of respect is there.”

Kumar said they do use courtesy titles and full names when introducing a source, and then just last names on all further references. It’s not meant to be disrespectful, but is meant to follow journalistic standards, she said.

All of the requested changes were communicated to students via the newspaper’s adviser, which Kumar said angers her. Staff writer Caitlyn Oestreich called it “disrespectful.”

“If he can’t come to us and say to our faces what he doesn’t approve on, then how can we trust him to make the right decisions when it comes to our hard work?” Oestreich wrote in an email interview.

Students gave the issue to Wiltzius April 9, and received comments April 16. That wait, combined with spring break, has put them “extremely behind,” Kumar said.

They’re still weighing their options going forward and are considering drafting an appeal to change the policy, Kumar said. She’s also consulted with the Student Press Law Center.

Wiltzius said there is no process for students to appeal the requested changes and he is “not aware” of any avenue they can take to get the guidelines changed, but that hasn’t stopped students from trying.

They started an online petition last month, which has more than 5,700 supporters. Some staff members have attended multiple school board meetings to speak up “to just show that we’re not going to stay quiet until we can get this resolved,” Oestreich said.

Wiltzius said he couldn’t answer questions about students’ First Amendment rights.

“All I know is that we are a public school,” Wiltzius said. “We’re guided by school board policy, and policy indicates that we must have guidelines for anything that we print or present as school-related. So that’s what I’m adhering to until I’m told differently.”

Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) established that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” A later ruling in 1988, Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier, curtailed some of those rights, stating 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.

Kumar questions whether Hazelwood applies to some of the requested changes.

“I’m not sure that you could argue that for any of the issues that they found except for maybe the word faggot in one of our graphic designs,” Kumar said.

Wiltzius said they want to ensure that pieces of writing and photographs are “respectful” and that the newsmagazine focuses on school-related issues in an “appropriate manner.” This “absolutely” allows room for stories that are critical of the administration, he said, as long as it’s done in a respectful manner.

Oestreich said her classmates were “incredibly upset” by the situation.

“Some of them want him to show respect towards us and answer our questions and talk to us like the young adults we are,” Oestreich wrote. “We know that what we print falls on us if somebody gets upset, and we’re always taking that into consideration.”

Kumar said the prior review guidelines changed the way staff members approached producing content for the publication. They had a different idea for a cover photo, but ultimately decided it was too risky and went with another less controversial option.

“Not that we want to self-censor, but in the back of our minds that’s always what we’re thinking about anyways,” Kumar said. “So we were pretty nervous before we submitted this for approval.”

Kumar said the issue is about more than censorship.

“It’s about being able to have a voice regardless of your age or the fact that you’re a high-schooler.”

Contact Coutré by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 126.