After controversial stories are cut, student journalists in Kentucky contact SPLC and launch an underground newspaper

duPont Manual High School (2012)

Louisville, Kentucky

After being “fed up with the roadblocks” from school administration, students at duPont Manual High School start their own independent student newspaper, The Red Pen.

“When I and some fellow high school students went about trying to fight back against our school’s administration, which had a history of using its power of prior review to suppress controversial news stories in our school’s publications, we were fish out of water — no idea what our rights were or where to start. The SPLC was a spectacular resource for us right from the start. The website provided us the materials we needed to get educated on what our press freedoms were as high school students compared to college students or adult journalists, and SPLC staff consulted with us about what our options were to circumvent our administration. We learned we needed to avoid producing our independent magazine on school grounds and try to distribute issues of the magazine off our school’s campus in order to protect us from our principal’s interference. There are all kinds of resources for professional journalists facing barriers to free speech, but high school journalists are an often-overlooked, underserved group, and we were so grateful that an organization like the SPLC existed to back us up. I don’t think we would have had the confidence to found, print and continue to work on our independent magazine without the help and support of the SPLC.”

— Zoe Schaver, a Red Pen editorial board member.

The trigger

Students at the Manual Redeye, the school-sponsored newspaper, experienced a number of controversies with duPont Manual Principal Larry Wooldridge. On one occasion, students were forced to cut out pages of a yearbook spread on gay and lesbian students after a parent complained to Wooldridge. After that, in 2008, Woolridge implemented a prior review policy where he approves any “controversial” material before it goes to print, but left it up to the journalism adviser to decide what stories fit that category.

Meanwhile, the student journalists were “fed up” with Woolridge’s interference with certain hard-hitting stories. In 2011, students were not allowed to publish a story on a teacher who had been caught “doing things with a student” and left the high school — Woolridge only wanted a blurb saying the teacher had resigned. Also during the 2010-11 school year, Woolridge took out a student government candidate’s reference to being gay, among other edits, when he reviewed a story prior to publication. In the spring of 2012, reporters Zoe Schaver and Patrick Haertel told Wooldridge they wanted to publish a yearbook spread on transgender students.

The school’s reaction

Wooldridge rejected the idea for a yearbook spread on transgender students, reportedly saying “That’s just never gonna get published.” Schaver and Haertel decided they wanted to start their own independent publication so they wouldn’t have to get his approval. Schaver took a one-page infographic of the “history of censorship” at the high school to Woolridge before printing the first issue of the underground paper — but she never heard anything back from him.

Fighting back

The student journalists launched an independent publication called the Red Pen, which was meant to invoke censorship and play off the name of the official student newspaper, the RedEye. The students’ journalism adviser was not involved in the Red Pen, but she was supportive. The students consulted with Student Press Law Center attorneys, who told them that they needed to produce the Red Pen away from school grounds and distribute the issues off campus to avoid interference from their principal. Schaver designed the publication at home and her parents lent her the $400 necessary to print 500 copies.

Their first edition was a 12-page newspaper that focused on student censorship and gay rights issues.

End result

While circulation was slow at first, the first edition went on to become a huge hit on campus.

Wooldridge later told the SPLC that while he did not read The Red Pen, he does try to balance student safety and confidentiality with his support of student media while implementing prior review.

The Red Pen staff went on to win the SPLC’s 2012 Courage in Student Journalism Award for overcoming administrative censorship.

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