Censorship is a dirty word.
To many, it’s a term that evokes images of book burnings and police states. It speaks to the stifling of free expression and the gagging of dissenting voices by authorities. It’s a terrible concept that has little place in today’s world, much less in American public schools.
Yet in these institutions, censorship is alive and well. The high-school newspapers of today are demonstrably less free than those of 25 years ago, and perhaps even less free than they were when most of us graduated. High-school journalism is under attack; it’s a problem, and it matters more to us than you’d think.
A quick Google search reveals pages of recent stories involving censorship or harsh reprimand of high-school journalists. At Stevenson High School in Illinois, for example, firestorms erupted over administrative removal of one piece advocating against teen pregnancy and another exploring alcohol and cigarette-smoking among honor students.
History hasn’t been kind to high-school journalistic expression either. In the 1988 decision Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, the Supreme Court ruled that educators don’t violate the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over student speech.
High-school administrators have taken this opinion to heart. Consulting firms sell “templates” that show educators the best ways to alter or eliminate potentially embarrassing student editorials. Censorship is the rule of the land, and the First Amendment is only relevant in determining the extent to which speech can be abridged before producing any serious legal challenges.
For a lot of us, this issue strikes close to home. After all, we’re a university of valedictorians, student body presidents and yes, even high-school newspaper editors. Personally speaking, my stint as opinions’ editor at my school paper remains one of my most important learning experiences. In a school of 1,500 Republicans and 10 Democrats, I penned editorials blasting the Iraq War and Bush’s response to Katrina. I took flak from students and fought administrators every step of the way, but I came out of it with a valuable new perspective on the importance of open dialogue and two-sided debate.
But the world can change a lot in three years. Current students from my high school inform me that every article is now scrutinized by administrators well before publication, with more pieces being cut than not. My school’s biweekly newspaper has been replaced by a monthly newsletter, and the kind of opinions-writing I enjoyed would now be impossible. Changes like this have occured across the country, and it doesn’t speak well to the future of journalism.
There is a tendency to stop caring about issues once they cease to be personally relevant; after all, how many folks over the age of 21 still care about lowering the drinking age? Unfortunately, an assault on high-school newspapers carries consequences well beyond graduation. Today’s beleaguered high-school journalists could become tomorrow’s reformers and hard-hitting investigative reporters. Freedom of the press is one of our country’s highest ideals. As such, censorship of inconvenient opinions shouldn’t play a big role in our high schools.
Emerson Brooking is a College junior from Turnerville, Ga. He is a member of the UA. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.Comments powered by Disqus
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