When students are lauded for circumventing censorship

As mentioned in the previous post (thanks to Storify), some of my students won recognition from the SPLC and my favorite media critic for their creation of The Red Pen. When students at our school win a significant national award like this, it seems like a no-brainer for our student press to cover the award.

But this was different. The students had won an award for essentially doing a defiant end-run around administrative censorship. To cover this story would bring up past controversies and possibly cause a new one.

As their adviser, it’s not my job to tell my journalism students whether or not they should run a story about this award. It’s up to the students themselves to decide. I will remind them of the principles and ethics of journalism; I will ask them to consider all of the stakeholders involved; but ultimately the decision is up to them.

In some ways, journalism educators and journalism students work in an environment very different from professional journalists. We have a captive audience, no competitors, and (in many cases) don’t rely on advertising. Student journalists don’t get paid and they can’t get fired. But there are a lot of similarities: high school journalists and professional journalists cover real people and real issues; their coverage can have a real impact on people’s lives; and they have publishers who can either be a boon or bane to the journalistic process and integrity of the publication. While it’s true that journalism students can’t be fired, journalism advisers certainly can (one recipient of the SPLC’s award is an adviser who was reassigned as punishment for supporting his student journalists), and I would argue that journalist students ought to take that into account when considering controversial topics.

No matter what happens in high school, the student journalists will eventually graduate and presumably head off to college and/or the workforce. But the adviser has to keep working there with the same administration; she or he has to keep paying their mortgage, feeding their children, and otherwise maintaining a livelihood.

This is one reason why student journalists ought to be responsible for their own content (and fighting their own censorship battles): they have less to lose than the advisers. The other, equally important reason is that student journalists learn nothing from having adults make their decisions and fight their battles for them. Dealing with controversy is part of being a responsible, professional journalist; the actions of the Red Pen’s editors demonstrated that they’ve learned quite a bit along those lines. For that reason, I couldn’t be prouder of them. But I’m still not sure how the other student journalists in the building should cover news of the award. We don’t want to be seen as poking the administration in the eye, and yet at the same time we don’t want to completely avoid the issue out of fear (that darn chilling effect).

Feel free to leave suggestions in the comments.

Students recognized for response to censorship

  1. First came the press release from the SPLC

  2. Then this tweet from Glenn Greenwald …
  3. ggreenwald
    Love this story: high school students censored from writing about gay issues, start their own newspaper, win award http://is.gd/Po4t6q
    Wed, Sep 19 2012 04:06:07
  4. … which led to a lot of retweets and new tweets:
  5. LudditeWebDev
    Pupils in Kentucky banned from writing about homosexuality in school newspaper, so publish their own. They win award. http://www.splc.org/news/newsflash.asp?id=2447
    Wed, Sep 19 2012 05:17:17
  6. MattGeorgMoore
    Congrats to The Red Pen (duPont Manual High School) for winning the 2012 Courage in Student Journalism Award: http://www.splc.org/news/newsflash.asp?id=2447
    Wed, Sep 19 2012 12:11:21
  7. lnebres
    These student journalists, deep in Red America, are truly making a difference. What have you done lately? 🙂 http://www.splc.org/news/newsflash.asp?id=2447
    Wed, Sep 19 2012 09:00:21
  8. katbrown82
    Quite phenomenal journalism and courage from American high school students. Read and be inspired: http://www.splc.org/news/newsflash.asp?id=2447id=2378 (via @rupertneate)
    Wed, Sep 19 2012 04:42:21
  9. mntsoper
    @ggreenwald The Red Pen story is truly inspiring! You must feel so honored that they traveled to see and interview you – awesome stuff. 🙂
    Wed, Sep 19 2012 10:34:03
  10. OccupySuburbanM
    Censored Students fight back and self publish newspaper w/ Gay issues winning National award for courage http://bit.ly/QmBrJy #LGBT ❤
    Wed, Sep 19 2012 06:20:24
  11. GDSdebate
    Check out the winner of the SPLC Courage in Student Journalism award, The Red Pen (expat/”underground” @ duPont Manual) http://www.theredpen.org
    Wed, Sep 19 2012 04:21:08
  12. bradluttrell
    duPont Manual HS independent newspaper, The Red Pen, won @Splc’s 2012 Courage in Student Journalism Award http://ow.ly/dNLhu #Louisville
    Tue, Sep 18 2012 08:34:06
  13. Then Greenwald mentioned the students in his Guardian column:
  14. And the Human Rights Campaign also brought it up on their blog:

Wait, you mean students have rights?

Tim Cushing writes on TechDirt about a recent case where a Minnesota court sided with a twelve-year-old girl whose school forced her to give up her Facebook password so they could trawl through her private messages:

For some strange reason, a large number of schools adhere to the notion that their students are not actually citizens of the United States and therefore, not granted the same rights as the “grownups.” The rationale for the limitation of these rights usually involves the word “safety,” a word that has been (ab)used in various forms to curtail rights of full-grown American citizens in other arenas.

This notion that students’ rights have to be curtailed in order to protect them from themselves has a lot of traction not only in public schools but in American society. As a parent, I have some sympathy for this perspective — of course my seven-year-old son shouldn’t get the same rights as an 18-year-old adult. But he still does have some basic citizen’s rights and I expect school administrators to respect that.

You can read the complete text of the Minnesota judge’s decision on GigaOm.