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Don't censor student news

Frank D. LoMonte
Iowa City Press-Citizen
Iowa City

June 25, 2011

When you read a column to the effect of, "Nobody's a bigger advocate for the First Amendment than me, but ..." -- which is effectively what Bob Elliott said in his June 24 Writers' Group column -- you know that you are about to be treated to an act of craven hypocrisy. Elliott did not disappoint.

Elliott's endorsement of the censorship of high school newspapers is so profoundly misguided, on the facts and on the law, that a response is required.

In the first place, it begs clarifying that, with the support of foresighted journalists (a club to which Elliott plainly does not belong), Iowa's Legislature in 1989 passed the Student Free Expression Law. Iowa's law makes it clear that students and not principals get to decide the content of student publications, with a fail-safe for truly unlawful or physically dangerous expression.

As a former Iowa journalist, Elliott should know whether entrusting editorial control to students has resulted in "journalism run amok." (Hint: It hasn't. Iowa high school newspapers are some of the best in the country because students who get to make their own judgments learn more effectively and take more pride in their work.)

Elliott's assertion that principals ought to have control over student publications equivalent to that of professional newspaper publishers reinforces the unfortunate misperception among too many principals that the newspaper is their personal play-toy. The analogy between a private corporate publisher and a powerful government official such as a principal is ill-fitting.

A publisher is free to devote the pages of "his" newspaper to advance personal ideological causes. If he decides to use the editorial page to crusade for the political candidate of his personal choice, that is his prerogative. A principal who did the same with his students' newspaper would be, rightly, run out of office for misusing taxpayer resources.

More importantly, the principal is -- unlike the publisher -- the chief government official over the jurisdiction that the newspaper is responsible for watching. The proper analogy is not to letting a publisher edit his company's newspaper, but to letting Mayor Michael Bloomberg edit The New York Times' coverage of his administration.

Most professional newspapers in America have either killed off the education beat or consolidated it with so many other beats that schools receive a miniscule amount of news coverage -- 1.4 percent of the space in a typical America newspaper, according to a December 2009 study by the Brookings Institution. If student journalists cannot honestly and independently cover school news without the "image control police" looking over their shoulders, then parents might never get an objective look at conditions inside of the schools for which their taxes pay.

A principal who kills a story because it reflects embarrassingly on him, his friends or his school is acting exactly like a newspaper publisher who pulls aside the city editor and says, "I know we always run a column with drunk-driving arrests in the paper, but I'm ordering you not to publish my buddy's drunk-driving arrest to protect his reputation." This would be considered grossly unethical behavior that would land the publisher an unflattering featured slot in the next issue of Columbia Journalism Review.

The idea that we need to treat students unethically in school to prepare them to be treated unethically in the business world is deeply cynical and deeply wrong. It would make exactly as much sense to say, "We know that you'll face sexual harassment when you get out into the business world, so the teachers are going to sexually harass you now to get you prepared."

Student journalists are the last people left on the face of the planet who are hopeful and enthusiastic and excited about newspapers. For a community newspaper columnist to devalue their work is, to put it in the nicest possible way, shortsighted. And to put it in the most honest possible way, idiotic.

Frank D. LoMonte is executive director of the Student Press Law Center, www.splc.org, a nonprofit organization based in Arlington, Va., providing legal assistance to the student media.

Originally printed in the Press-Citizen. Click here for article.

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