A Serious Blow to Journalism Education
(The Keene Sentinel, February 20, 1988)

The recent Supreme Court decision condoning the censorship of high school newspapers by principals is a devastating blow to journalism education in the nation's schools.

To many teachers serving as newspaper advisers, the student press is a tool for the teaching of journalistic ethics and responsibility. If students are responsible for what they print, then advisers can alert them to stories that may be libelous, unfair or in questionable taste. Because it is the students' decision whether to publish, they must process that advice. In this way they learn firsthand about the responsibility of the press.

The Supreme Court decision prohibits students from learning that responsibility, except as an abstraction. They are not responsible for what is printed, so they have no need to worry about it. That, says the Supreme Court is the job of a high school principal.

A previous Supreme Court decision, which has governed the relationship between high school administrators and the student press since the '60s, said that a student's constitutional rights did not stop at the schoolhouse gate. While that decision has generally inhibited principals from overt and widespread censorship, it certainly never excluded the desires and wishes of principals from affecting the content of student newspapers.

Even in the most liberal schools, principals and student editors have been aware of the potential power, for good or ill, of the other. In this situation, both have had to learn to accommodate the views of the other. If the principal did not want something published, he had to rely upon a relationship of trust and respect, and the use of logic and reason, to convince the student editor his concerns were legitimate.

On the other hand, student editors had to realize that even though the previous Supreme court decision had protected them from crass censorship, their principals still could choose to make their lives miserable. Even overt censorship could still be attempted. After all, the principal involved in the case that led to the most recent decision removed two stories from the student paper, leaving the pages blank, without notifying the student editor.

Now we have a court decision that proclaims it is the principal's right to censor any and all student words, printed or spoken, that, in his or her view, are against the "educational mission" of the school. This creates tremendous responsibilities.

Will principals who have been given the right to censor soon see it as their duty? Will school board and community members feel that everything not censored by the principal is condoned by him?

Will advisers be forced to accurately anticipate community reactions to each story as well as each story's journalistic quality? Will advisors, forced to choose between protecting their administration or their students, be overly cautious and restrictive? Will student papers become little more than gossip sheets and pep rally progaganda?

I would like to believe the answer to each of these questions will be "No," but experience indicates otherwise.

Supporters of the court decision point to the discipline and respect it will foster in our schools. Principals will be more in control, they say. Principals will be respected. Students willknow their place.

I doubt, however, that the students causing discipline problems even read their school apers, let alone become their editors. Instead we are telling our best, our hardest-working and our most active students, that we don't trust them, and that their thoughts count only when the are inoffensive and agreeable.

There are few winners and many losers as a result of this decision. Unfortunately, the biggest loser is the integrity of schools. It is a cynical charade to try teach our young how to think without allowing them to do so.

(Michael O'Leary, who teaches at Conval High School in Peterborough, is the adviser to the school paper, The Essence.)