17. Censoring Tomorrow’s Journalists Today

Published: Updated:

Source: FREEDOM FORUM, Date: February 1994, Title: DEATH BY CHEESE­BURGER: High School journalism in the 1990s and Beyond, Authors: Alice Bonner and Judith Hines

SSU Censored Researcher: Jennifer Bums

SYNOPSIS: In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the First Amendment did not apply to student journalists. In “Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier,” the Court ruled that the principal of Hazelwood East High School, near St. Louis, did not violate the First Amendment rights of students by deleting two pages of the campus newspaper which contained mate­rial he found offensive. In what some considered an unconstitu­tional act, the Court gave school administrators the power to prac­tice prior restraint over student newspapers.

Surprisingly, this unprecedented action generated little outrage among professional journalists, who might have been expected to spring

1. The defense of student journal­ists. In fact, many of the 1988 edi­torials commenting on Hazelwood in the professional press almost seemed to mock the students for their arrogance in believing they should be allowed to cover what was important to them. Comparing the principal to a newspaper pub­lisher, they said young people might as well learn early that reporters and editors don’t always get their way.

Not surprisingly, high school principals who want to control the student press seized upon Hazelwood as a justification for prior review or for restriction of subjects students can write about. The Student Press Law Center (SPLC), which monitors student press rights, has reported an increase in requests for assistance with censorship problems from high school journalists since Hazelwood. The student publica­tions that call SPLC report censor­ship of articles, editorials, and advertisements considered contro­versial. Advisers report threats to their jobs if they refuse to follow school officials’ orders to censor material.

The chilling effect of Hazelwood is also reflected in the quality of the student press. An in-depth analysis of high school journalism by The Freedom Forum, a non-par­tisan organization dedicated to a free press, found that 72 percent of 233 student newspapers were either “average” or “boring.” The study also reported that of 270 high school newspaper advisors, 37 per­cent admitted that school princi­pals had rejected newspaper articles or required changes.

In a foreword to the study, John Seigenthaler, chair of the Freedom Forum, warned of the threat of cen­sorship to school newspapers. He also reproached the editors who rushed to endorse the press censor­ship in the Hazelwood decision in 1988 … and who since have defended the Court’s decision to crush high school press freedom. Seigenthaler also noted that the cases of outrageous censorship doc­umented in the Freedom Forum’s 182-page report are “horror sto­ries-gripping to read, oppressive to think about, offensive to the First Amendment.”

In describing how censorship can take hold quickly in a school, the report points out that “when students have been censored a number of times, they stop writing anything controversial, feeling that whatever they write either won’t make it into print or will get them into trouble with school adminis­trators.”

Journalists already indoctrinated into accepting censorship at the high school level are well prepared to enter professional careers at pub­lications more interested in maintaining the status quo than in muckraking. Perhaps this helps explain editors’ reluctance to criti­cize and publicize the Hazelwood decision and its impact.

COMMENTS: Co-authors Alice Bonner and Judith Hines point out that while Death By Cheeseburger was not itself a “censored” publica­tion, it tells the story of “the failure of high school journalism to live up to its high potential because of lack of funding, teacher preparation, equipment, school credit, and, yes, often overt censorship of the stu­dents’ voices. The subject has received almost no exposure in the last 20 years, when `Captive Voices,’ the most recent in-depth study of the high school press was pub­lished. Both the good news of the writing, analytical, organizational and entrepreneurial skills students can gain from working on a high school newspaper, and the bad news about the weakness of scholastic journalism have received too little exposure.”

The authors feel that if the sub­ject were to receive more coverage, teachers and students might receive a better journalism educa­tion, and teenagers and adults would benefit from hearing and reading the voices of young people-too seldom heard from today, especially concerning issues that affect them directly.

Those who benefit from the lim­ited media coverage given the issue include “school administrators and other adults who fear losing con­trol-who have little faith in giving teenagers responsibility so they can prove they can act responsibly.” And also those who have an investment in keeping things “the way we’ve always done it” in high school.

The Freedom Forum, seeking to increase the energy and support for high school journalism among edu­cators, journalists, and especially young people, is distributing Death By Cheeseburger as widely as pos­sible-offering a free copy to every high school and professional news­paper editor in the USA.