Wis. high school reverses prior review policy, returns editorial control to students, adviser

WISCONSIN — Fond du Lac High School’s student news organization will return to business as usual this academic year with new guidelines, after a prior review policy caused friction between administrators and student journalists in the previous school year.

In March, former Principal Jon Wiltzius created the Fond du Lac High School Publications Editorial Guidelines for the Cardinal Columns after student journalists ran stories on topics ranging from sexual assault to students’ rights to not stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. The previous guidelines allowed Wiltzius to review any school-sponsored publications before they could be printed or published, which would have allowed the principal to censor any content he saw as inappropriate.

But after an internal committee recommended revised guidelines approved by the Fond du Lac Board of Education, Cardinal Columns will operate under guidelines that place more control of in the hands of the student editors and their adviser, according to the Fond du Lac Reporter.

“Student editors, journalists and staff have the right to report and editorialize on events, ideas and issues in the school community, nation and world, even though these may be unpopular or controversial,” according to the new guidelines.

The guidelines require the adviser — print journalism, broadcast journalism and film studies teacher Matt Smith — to prohibit students from publishing material he finds in his “professional judgement” to be “obscene, vulgar, profane, libelous, inconsistent with the educational goals of the district,” among other requirements.

Representatives for Cardinal Columns and the Fond du Lac School District did not return phone calls or emails requesting comment.

The new guidelines also include how Cardinal Columns should cover controversial issues, decide when it is proper to publish profanity and even how to address potential errors in published materials. When concerning ethical decision-making, the guidelines say “the final decision about how to handle the material will be made by the editor(s)-in-chief in consultation with the adviser.”

Fond du Lac High School also has a new principal, Michelle Hagen, going into the school year along with the new guidelines.

Wiltzius approached the content he found questionable in the spring semester based on the precedent set by Hazelwood School District et al. v. Kuhlmeier et al., which allows principals to censor school-sponsored publications for any “valid educational purpose.”

Hazelwood diminished student journalists’ protection from the Court’s earlier precedent, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which allows students to exercise their First Amendment rights as long as they do not create a substantial distraction to the learning environment.

Contact SPLC staff writer Michael Bragg by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 119.