The First Amendment enhances a wall on the 2nd floor of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in Phoenix, Ariz. Photo taken Wednesday, June 27, 2012. - Donna Owen

No prior review: three words high school journalists long to hear. Yet, who really determines what content is appropriate for a school publication when the administration steps aside? And who is ultimately responsible for the content that is printed if the publication has no prior review?

The adviser?

“You’re really the publisher. The school and you are the publisher. But you’re the adult in charge,” said Joe Garcia, communication director for the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University. “The principal is your boss and in essence the publisher too.”

So when the student press wishes to publish material that is likely to displease the administration, how does an adviser protect students’ First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the press and maintain a positive working relationship with the boss?

Experienced journalists say that putting the responsibility on the students may be the answer. Plus, journalism teachers who require their editors to be an integral part of the decision-making process teach those students valuable life skills. Student journalists learn to negotiate with authority figures and speak up for the interests of their readers.

“It’s all role play,” said Brian Snyder, a TV production specialist for Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a former high school journalism adviser. “This is grown-up stuff,” Snyder said.

So where do advisers begin?

“Ask the editors who are most responsible: ‘Is this balanced coverage?’ Do you feel like this is telling both sides of the story?’” Snyder said. “Then, have them go back and read it. That’s where their smarts will come into play.”

“The kids need to understand, first of all, what the First Amendment is, and the First Amendment doesn’t necessarily mean that you print everything you possibly can,” said Garcia, who teaches news writing at Cronkite School.

“I think that when you’re at the high school level, there is the tendency to want to shock and rock the boat.” Garcia said. “Really kind of push the envelope. That’s just natural. But I think what needs to be taught is the responsibility.”

Frank LoMonte, executive director of Student Press Law Center, said that students and teachers can call the law center’s hotline at (703) 807-1904 whenever they have questions about conflicts with stories.

“We back students off of crazy stuff all the time,” LoMonte said.

If students re-evaluate a controversial story and still decide to print it, what should happen then?

One way that advisers can teach responsible journalism is to require students to meet with the principal when they believe their voices are being censored. Plus, involving the students in those decisions may help journalism advisers retain administrative support.

LoMonte said that the adviser and students must approach the administrator in the correct manner.

“You want at all costs to not get yourself into a head-butting contest because when you head-butt a brick wall, the wall usually wins,” LoMonte said. Saying that his organization hears about journalism teachers getting reassigned when they oppose their administrators and publish stories that inspire controversy, LoMonte said that students have to be the vocal ones but that they will want their advisers to make their arguments for them.

“Legally they’ve got to because don’t forget that the First Amendment protects the speaker. You’re not the speaker. It’s not your speech,” LoMonte said. “They’re going to want you to do it. They think: You’re the grown-up in the room. But they’ve got to take ownership of it.

“We never recommend that someone go charging into the administrator’s office waving the First Amendment in front of them saying, ‘I know my constitutional rights.’” LoMonte said. A diplomatic approach works best, he said.

Garcia said consensus is vital.

“It’s not like the principal is not part of it,” he said. “We all have to have uncomfortable meetings with the publisher sometimes, and we don’t always get what we want in newspapers. That’s just how it is. But if you’re part of the process, it’s a little easier to swallow that pill sometimes.”

Snyder said that students have to lead the conversation because it’s their voices being stifled. “And then the kids can come back and report to the reporters and everybody else, and it’s not just you,” he said.

Principals are educators, too, and they may view such discussions as educational opportunities for the students. Lisa Fine, principal of McIntosh High School in Peachtree City, Ga., said that she would welcome having a dialogue with the students.

“I enjoy conducting conversations and reaching a consensus with students and specifically student leaders,” Fine said. “As we promote critical thinking, collaboration and communication, it is essential that we provide opportunities for students to engage in these activities with school leaders.”

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Cronkite Connection ASNE Reynolds HSJ Institute at Arizona State University Phoenix, AZ
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