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Opening Arguments

It's not the First

The Woodlan student-journalism imbroglio continues to get a lot of attention. Most of those weighing in make liberal use of the "C" word, including the two Franklin College profs featured on our editorial page yesterday. First there is John Krull, who is also the president of the state chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists:

Censorship is the lazy person's response to dealing with thorny issues. Like most lazy responses to challenges, it doesn't work. The school system's leaders have not suppressed the message; they simply have divided their school system and wasted precious time and resources.

If the leaders of East Allen County Schools ever want to integrate lessons into their schools about the ways journalists balance rights and responsibilities, the Indiana Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists would love to help.

Then there is Ray Begovich, who appears to express some sympathy for principals, but then comes down on them just as heavily:

Far too often, principals think the school newspaper is a public-relations tool for them rather than a learning tool for students. What happens when bad news or sensitive issues get reported in the student newspaper? Boom! The censorship sledgehammer comes slamming down.

And when that hammer hits, it pulverizes two ideals expressed in the Bill of Rights: freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

I hate to sound like a broken record, but a student newspaper is a school enterprise, which means the school bears the ultimate responsibility for what's in it. If something libelous is printed, it will be the school that is sued. If something in bad taste is printed, it will be administrators who are taken to task. The principal, who reports to the school board, which is responsible to the public, is the logical choice to be the publisher. Everybody keeps saying these students should be given the same rights as journalists out here in the real world. Out here, we all report to a publisher, whose word is law. If we don't like that, we can start our own newspaper. That's also an option, thanks to evolving technology, today's students have a much better chance of taking than their parents' generation did. Don't like the way the paper is run? Start an online one or a blog, and run it from home.

Do those who accuse the principal of censorship think someone else -- the journalism adviser, perhaps -- should have the ultimate authority? That would solve nothing -- it would still be a sign that Adults Are In Charge, proof that "censorship" is still being practiced. The only alternative left is to give the students complete control, with no adult having the final say over what is printed. If the bogus First Amendment arguments weren't being thrown around, that would be seen as the insanity it is. Just put the students in charge of their own education, and send the teachers home.

Also without the First Amendment red herring, this would be just another personnel issue. Perhaps we want to argue that the principal wasn't being a very good leader. He didn't exercise enough oversight, letting the journalism adviser alert him to something controversial. Then, when he felt that trust had been misplaced, he overreacted by deciding to be picky about everything in the paper. But we can fault the teacher, too, for not realizing that telling people their religious beliefs were misinformed, as a way of urging tolerance for gays, might be a tad controversial, and for keeping the pot boiling after she was reprimanded. There should be no mystery why she was suspended -- it's called insubordination.

But that's all based on speculation about the facts we have available, and there are probably ones we don't know. In any case, it has nothing to do with student rights or the First Amendment.   

Posted in: Hoosier lore


Wed, 03/28/2007 - 9:38am

What sounds like a broken record here is the lame argument that the teacher in effect told people their religious beliefs are misinformed. Kevin Leininger pulled this out of his hind end a few weeks ago and now I see it here.

Hasn't anyone heard? Unregenerate bigots are no longer allowed to hide behind religion, at least not in polite society. As usual, though, the word's a little slow getting back here to the far corners of the flat earth.

Steve Towsley
Thu, 03/29/2007 - 12:20pm

>Far too often, principals think the school
>newspaper is a public-relations tool for
>them rather than a learning tool for

Far too often, kids presume their learning institution should not apply formal structure or limits to its own education processes.

If you want to be a journalist, you can learn plenty of nuts & bolts in high school newspapers, especially about community values, self-restraint and the necessity to cover the routine and the mundane as part of the public service, without skipping the "boring parts" in favor of the instant gratification of controversial opinion columns.

There's an old saying about self-expression that talks about having to learn the rules of a craft before breaking them. High schools should have the right to choose to stick to teaching the rules of the craft.

Kenn Gividen
Sat, 03/31/2007 - 4:30am

Having the right to say it doesn't make it right to say.

That's the lesson journalism instructors are failing to teach.

Stuart Nachbar
Wed, 05/09/2007 - 10:22am

I am reading the Amy Sorrell story from New Jersey, as someone who is about to publish a similar story, but in fiction