Missouri student journalists fear censorship after administrators request review of edgy stories

MISSOURI — Student journalists at Glendale High School are raising concerns that the administration’s increased involvement in their publication is leading them down a path to censorship.

After the latest edition of the Quill was released last month, Editor-in-Chief Maddi Pearcy said administrators took issue with some of the content and began requiring the magazine to alert administrators when they’re working on “edgier” stories.

One of the stories that generated controversy was an editorial Pearcy wrote urging administrators to shift their focus from student ID badges to alleged drug and rodent problems at the school. She said administrators were also unhappy with a photo accompanying a story about students with tattoos and with a story about students illegally taking prescription drugs — usually used to treat attention deficit disorder — to enhance their ACT performance.

“My administration is saying my editorial piece was a personal attack on them and that through my ACT medicated piece, I am promoting the use of illegal drugs,” she said.

Teresa Bledsoe, director of communications for the school district, said questions and concerns raised about the recent issue prompted discussions between teachers and administrators about what’s going on in the journalism class that produces the publication.

“That’s just the nature of classes,” Bledsoe said. “There’s that ongoing dialogue about what’s happening in classes and keeping administration informed of what’s happening in classes.”

Pearcy learned about the changes from her adviser, who sat the students down and told them they were going to have to start running things by administrators, she said.

“They said that if we have an edgier story then we need to put it on their desk and let them read it before we publish,” Pearcy said.

It bothered her that she wasn’t hearing from administrators directly, so she went to talk to the principal. An assistant principal told her they had received upwards of 13 complaints about the edition and they were doing the magazine a favor by “running interference,” Pearcy said.

Pearcy said that she disagrees with administrators’ assertion that the content was inappropriate, and that she’s always taken pride in the fact that “we don’t always write about rainbows and butterflies. We generally really like to get in the dirt a little bit with our stories.”

The photo accompanying the tattoo story is not posted online, but shows a girl lifting her shirt to reveal a tattoo along her side. Though her breast is “completely covered,” Pearcy said administrators called it nudity and said it was promoting promiscuity. Bledsoe said the photo was a “little revealing.”

For the story about illegal prescription drug use, Pearcy said she localized a national story of students taking Adderall to enhance their test performance. She did her “very best” to show it’s not an OK trend, but school officials said it was advocating for drug use, she said.

Bledsoe said the ACT story didn’t explain all the ramifications of taking unprescribed prescription drugs and used many anonymous sources.

Pearcy said in the past, there has been no involvement from administrators and the former principal (the current principal took her position this year) even congratulated her on a story she wrote about the legalization of marijuana last year.

Administrators are not as hands-off now, she said. One reporter had to run his questions by school administrators before interviewing the new superintendent. This is a new process, Pearcy said.

“Since then we have had administrators come into the journalism room and question our stories that are being written currently for the next issue of the Quill,” Pearcy said, adding that in-progress stories are listed on the whiteboard in the newsroom.

Bledsoe confirmed an assistant principal reviewed the reporter’s questions, but said the administrator didn’t change any of them and suggested adding a few more. She said she couldn’t comment on the historical relationship between the administration and the Quill. She stressed that there isn’t a blanket policy requiring prior review of all stories.

Board policy states that “reasonable restrictions” will be observed on sponsored school publications “since the public generally regards the publications to represent not only the work of the students but also an expression of the faculty, administration, and School District.”

“The Board of Education and the school administration are the publisher and have, in the last analysis, the responsibility for the proper production of such publications,” the policy states.

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) determined that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of the speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Hazelwood School Distrcit v. Kuhlmeier (1988), however, curtailed some of those rights and said that school-sponsored publications produced as part of a class that aren’t established as a public forum for student expression could be censored if officials demonstrate a reasonable educational justification for doing so.

Bledsoe said it’s administrators’ responsibility to ensure that there is quality instruction and that anything published “represents a fair and balanced perspective.”

“The focus of any suggested improvements that the principal or assistant principal is making is to ensure that thoughtful and careful consideration is given to the content of the publication, and the standards for those are outlined in our school board policy,” Bledsoe said.

Sarah Stone, senior and photo editor for the Quill, said she’s worried that administrators are teaching them it’s not OK to write articles that could make people uncomfortable.

“News is uncomfortable sometimes,” Stone said. “We’re just doing our job as student journalists to bring out the issues at Glendale and bring them to light and show people what’s going on at the school because they have the right to know.”

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