Prior review policy results in censorship of Wisconsin student journalists — again

WISCONSIN — Student journalists at Fond du Lac High School had to choose between releasing their final paper in time for graduation and fighting against what they felt was unfair censorship. They chose to print the censored paper.

After reviewing the latest issue – as required under the school’s new prior review policy – Assistant Principal Peter Snyder suggested changing or removing parts of articles on teenage pregnancy, students’ reaction to an ongoing censorship debate with administration, a humorous profile on a group of friends in the school, an editorial on programs that try to cure homosexuality which he called “too general,” and a music review that used “street slang.”

The students gave Snyder the last edition of the Cardinal Columns for review Wednesday morning, and Snyder called the paper’s advisor Matthew Smith with his comments Thursday around noon. The paper’s deadline was 3 p.m., said Tanvi Kumar, the paper’s co-editor-in-chief. When Smith asked what would happen if the students didn’t want to make the adjustments, Snyder said he would have to get back to him, Smith said.

Students tried to talk with Snyder on Thursday but he declined to answer their questions, staff writer Caitlyn Oestreich said. With no clear answer, on Friday the student staff unanimously decided to remove the censored parts of the paper and publish, Smith said. The paper will be ready to sell Wednesday – the last day of school for seniors, he said.

“They were definitely frustrated by the whole process,” Smith said. “They were not happy about having to make the changes. But, it was unanimous. They wanted a final issue.”

Kumar expressed the same sentiment, saying she was worried a digital copy of the paper after school ended wouldn’t be as appealing to student.

“We always put it online, but print is print,” she said. “Once school ends, I don’t know how many people will read [online].”

Snyder, Principal Jon Wiltzius and Superintendent James Sebert did not respond to multiple calls and emails. Wiltzius has announced he’s leaving the school at the end of the year for another job, and he was out of the office last week.

Among the text Snyder asked the staff to alter or remove was a quote from a girl who said she was “terrified to walk around” school “because the guys who raped me walk around the halls.” Snyder asked them to remove it because it reflects negatively on the school, Kumar said.

In the article on teen pregnancy, the paper quotes a female student and teen mother as saying, “The best way to not have an unplanned pregnancy is to stay abstinent, but life is always going to happen. You will at some point in your life have sex, so keep it safe. Get on birth control, don’t be appalled if a male or female has a condom.” Smith underlined the last part of the student’s quote and wrote in the margins that Snyder said it was “telling to get on birth control.”

In the same article, the reporter talks about the different options pregnant women have, including abortion and adoption. Snyder asked them to remove or reword the fact that Planned Parenthood offers abortions, telling Smith they “don’t want to seem like the school is supporting abortion.”

The Wisconsin school instituted a policy of prior review in March, a month after Cardinal Columns published the stories of three female students who were sexually assaulted. The article, “The Rape Joke,” explored the way casual jokes about rape hurt sexual assault victims. Since the prior review policy was imposed, other articles have been censored, including a photo illustration that was to accompany an article about the censorship.

The fight against censorship has been ongoing ever since. Students unaffiliated with the newspaper staged a 50-person sit in earlier this month, and nearly 6,000 people have signed a petition asking the superintendent to reverse the policy. Several staff members and supporters have attended school board meetings to to speak against the policy.

Vincent Filak, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh who has spoken to the school board on behalf of the students, says administrators are “making fools of themselves.”

“I keep finding myself amazed at how bad they are at understanding what the law dictates, what a reasonable journalist would dictate and the entire concept of free press dictates,” Filak said. “Every time I think they’ve surprised me with how bad they can be, they go a step further.”

Linda Barrington, the executive director of the Kettle Moraine Press Association who also spoke in front of the school board on behalf of the students, expressed similar disbelief.

“I just can’t believe that the school district is treating them like this,” she said. “They don’t deserve it. They’ve proved themselves as good journalists. The community has said they should be allowed to do it. Certainly their parents stand behind them. Who in the world are they (the school board) answering to?”

There is some indication the policy could be revised in response to concerns raised thus far. A small group of teachers, administrators and students met Thursday afternoon to talk about revising the policy and agreed on a list of goals, Smith said.

“In general, we agreed that students’ learning should be the top priority, that there should be a way to do this without needing prior review and that students should make all final decisions on the content,” he said.

They hope to present the new policy to the school board on June 23, Smith said.

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