A former student of mine in her first semester of her college journalism career recently came to visit me. I was excited to hear how she was enjoying her classes, but the conversation was clouded by something she had heard from one of her professors. He told her class that student journalists might be better off not having any experience than they would working on a publication operating under prior review.
My newspaper staff has been subjected to prior review for the seven years I have been advising (the school’s prior review history predates my tenure). During my job interview, the then-principal and assistant principal informed me that I would be expected to share the paper with them before it went to print. They spoke of troubles past newspaper staffs had practicing “gotcha journalism” (I doubt they called it this, as Sarah Palin was probably still a beauty queen at this point, but it was something along those lines) and seemingly trying to be controversial in its coverage of the school. My future boss, who was new to the school, wanted to ensure my publication would focus more on the positive things happening on campus. Eager to land the job, I agreed to its terms, even though I knew better. Perhaps I thought I could change their minds once they saw the kind of adviser I was, perhaps I thought my students wouldn’t be typical teenagers who wanted to explore issues of sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, but I’m ashamed to admit that the truth is I needed a job and I really didn’t think it would be that big of a deal to have my principal read over the newspaper before it went to print.
And on most days, it feels like it’s not that big of a deal. My students feel comfortable broaching sensitive topics, and they don’t shy away from discussing their ideas with their principal. Of the hundreds of articles they have written over the years, only a handful have been turned down, most commonly for the actual reporting of a sensitive topic, not the topic itself. When given the opportunity to correct and resubmit the articles, the reporters invariably chose to let them die. Whether they felt it was too much work, or were disheartened and believed the story would be cut no matter what changes they made, I don’t know. And it’s this doubt that reminds me that while it doesn’t come up every day, it IS a really big deal every day. Each decision my staff makes takes into consideration the potential reaction of administration. Why spend time writing a story if it’s ultimately going to be cut, they ask. I tell them they will benefit from the experience of reporting on a topic of interest to them, even if it isn’t read by the student body. But we all know that’s not true. My students chose journalism because they want to inform, they want to educate and, yes, at times they want to titillate. And they should be allowed to do that, on any topic, without fear of censorship.
I know of many advisers who believe their job is to stand completely to the side and allow all decisions to be made by their students. I applaud those advisers, but I could never be one. I believe my job as a teacher is to make suggestions and help to edit student work to help them learn, even if that sometimes means taking out inappropriate commentary. I do understand why those advisers would tell me I am censoring my students, and I don’t necessarily disagree. But I don’t see it so black and white. I don’t understand how my writers who often have trouble stringing a sentence together benefit from an adviser with a completely hands-off approach. How will they improve without some sort of guidance? And I don’t understand how allowing the staff to write a vulgar or potentially defamatory article is in their best interest. Before allowing them to proceed on something controversial (or just plain misguided), I want to understand why it’s so important and if, after discussing all angles of the story and the potential reaction from all involved, they students are still convinced, I’ll go with it. But I couldn’t sleep at night if I wasn’t that involved. If a student in one of my English classes used profanity or off-color subject matter in a literary analysis, I would question her judgment and penalize her for not considering the audience. I don’t think it should be different with my journalism students.
But while some may call into question my methods as an adviser, the greater issue is the limitations my students deal with under prior review. In most aspects of public school life, administrators are afraid of making waves. It often feels that decisions are made simply to avoid confrontations from angry or concerned parents or local interest groups, and this is especially true when it comes to student media. We all know that it only takes one unhappy zealot to start a witch hunt. I get that at best, these confrontations create all sorts of headaches for administration, and at worst, they could cause real legal trouble for the school. But it is completely impractical — and pretty selfish — to believe you can spare yourself a headache by avoiding even the smallest of controversial issues.
Sometimes I buy the argument that prior review in public schools is no different from working in a news room and taking direction from a managing editor or publisher. Decisions sometimes come from the top that limit a journalist’s freedom. Is it right? No. But it happens. So why should a school, with all its special interests as outlined in cases like Fraser and Hazelwood, be any different? And sometimes I buy that it’s those special interests that make student media altogether different from professional journalism. No one expects the school “newspaper” to be anything other than a public relations tool for the school, so why should my students have grander aspirations? I understand, however, that it’s exactly that sort of mindset that has landed us in the situation I’m in. I certainly don’t share those beliefs, but by passively accepting things as they are, I am setting the worst sort of example for my students.
It saddens me to know that I am definitely not alone. And, practically speaking, in this age of budget reductions and course cuts, there’s not a lot to be done about it if teachers like me want to keep their jobs. All you need to do is check out the latest news at the Student Press Law Center to find plenty of stories of teachers who have lost their positions for fighting for their students’ freedom — the very same freedom our Founding Fathers believed was so great that they put it first. Can I afford to give up my job? No. So this makes me some sort of cross between a willful participant in the de-education of my students and a pawn in an image-control game. It’s an icky place to be, when I look inward and deeply assess the situation. So on most days I keep my head down and just do my best to give my students the most “real” journalism experience I can, under the parameters I naively helped set for them. And I hope upon hope that when those students get to college or beyond they will remember the things I taught them as useful lessons, not some random collection of half-truths they promptly had to unlearn in order to make their way in the world. Because that, for me (and quite selfishly), would be the real tragedy of prior review.