High school paper in Wisconsin slapped with a prior review policy after publishing a story on rape culture; SPLC’s model guidelines soon replace policy

Fond du Lac High School (2014)

Fond du Lac, Wisconsin

The staff of the Cardinal Columns student newspaper fought back when their administration imposed a restrictive policy of prior review after the publication of a story on rape culture.

“After the publication of a controversial issue of my student magazine that featured a story I wrote on high school rape culture, the school board in my town decided to implement a policy of prior review. The implementation of the policy seemed to convey the message that maintaining public relations was more important than survivors sharing their story. Although I had drafted an open letter to the superintendent, I was at a complete loss for how to proceed. The Student Press Law Center made me feel less alone. I realized that what was happening to my high school publication (unfortunately) happened all over the country. If it hadn’t been for the SPLC, I might’ve listened to the people who told me I was causing a scene with no actual legal basis. Beyond legalese, the SPLC helped me realize that what I was fighting for was important. With their support, we were able to overturn the prior review policy and return Cardinal Columns to the rightful hands of student journalists.

— Tanvi Kumar, then-editor of the Cardinal Columns

The trigger

The staff of the Cardinal Columns newspaper published an in-depth news article, “The Rape Joke,” which included interviews with survivors of sexual assault talking about the impact of insensitive humor about rape.

The school’s reaction

The school responded by imposing a prior review policy. The guidelines allowed the principal to prevent the publication of materials that were considered “poorly written, inadequately researched, false, defamatory or libelous, vulgar or profane, unsuitable for immature audiences, or biased or prejudiced.” The rules were used to censor an illustration accompanying a story about those very guidelines and multiple parts of the final issue of the year.

Fighting back

The students collected thousands of signatures on an online petition and attended multiple school board meetings to urge more student control of the newspaper. The SPLC intervened and provided its model publications policy.

End result

The district ultimately enacted an improved policy that respects student press rights. The editor, Tanvi Kumar, won SPLC’s 2014 Courage in Student Journalism Award for standing up to the heavy hand of administrative censorship.

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