HSJ Headline News
First Amendment issues still a struggle in high schools
June 18, 2008
When Naperville Central High School's student newspaper published a package of stories about drug use earlier this year, the young reporters probably suspected it would cause a stir.
What they couldn't guess, though, is their stories would push them into a First Amendment battle that captured the attention of schools and journalists throughout the region and ultimately would cost their popular and award-winning adviser her job.
Now, months later, the debate over the wisdom of publishing such stories still isn't settled, and there's no clear consensus -- in Naperville or elsewhere -- on the role school administrators should play in determining what student journalists can and can't write.
Instead, many high schools still face a continuation of the long-running power struggle between student journalists decrying potential violations of their free speech and administrators who point to their responsibility to protect the welfare of the student body.
Logan Aimone, executive director of the National Scholastic Press Association, says some thought the 1988 Supreme Court case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier would create a new legal standard for when administrators could censor school newspapers, but it only made the issue more contentious.
In that case, a principal at Hazelwood East High School in St. Louis County, Mo., deleted two pages of the student newspaper because of concerns with one story that described student experiences with pregnancy and another that discussed the impact of divorce on students.
The U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-3 to support the district, saying the principal acted reasonably and the paper couldn't be characterized in this case as a forum for public expression.
But schools and attorneys on both sides of the issue still are trying to hash out what the ruling truly means.
"Principals thought they would have more leeway to enforce the content of student newspapers (after the ruling)," Aimone says. "(But) it hasn't really been challenged that much in court, and it's hard to tell when it would apply."
Faced with such legal ambiguity, it seems the best either side can hope for is an uneasy truce.
The Central Times has long been viewed as a high school newspaper that isn't afraid to tackle tough topics head-on -- and it has all sorts of awards to prove it.
The driving force behind that success has been adviser Linda Kane, a teacher at Central who is wildly popular among her student journalists -- largely because of her staunch support of the First Amendment and her willingness to explore challenging issues and to sometimes tweak people in charge.
That approach hasn't always made her a lot of friends with her bosses or peers, and it occasionally has gotten her into hot water with both.
So it wasn't a huge surprise when her staff decided over the winter to give students a relatively unique perspective on drugs that, among other things, included a first-person account from an anonymous dealer who used some raw language that wouldn't normally appear in a family newspaper.
The package also included stories pointing out the danger of such a lifestyle.
Kane and her students thought the series was hard-hitting and balanced. Some school officials, including Principal Jim Caudill, thought it used highly inappropriate language and glorified the use of illegal substances.
It wasn't the first time Caudill and Kane butted heads over stories in the Central Times. Prior disagreements already had led Caudill to ask to review a list of headlines before the paper was published -- although he did not insist on reading the stories in advance.
This time, though, the dispute rapidly became public and Kane was fired from her adviser post after suggesting in the Daily Herald that Caudill didn't understand or care about freedom of the press and was too interested in preserving the school's image.
Kane remained at the paper's helm through the end of the school year and will be allowed to continue teaching English until her scheduled retirement in two years.
Caudill admitted at the end of the school year that he had plagiarized portions of a speech he gave to graduating seniors and has been reassigned to Naperville Unit District 203's central office.
The Central Times situation is exactly the kind of public battle that keeps school administrators up at night, and it's one reason many insist on some element of control over student publications.
At Glenbard North High School in Carol Stream, for example, adviser Jaime Hajek gives Principal John Mensik a heads-up if something controversial is scheduled to appear in the North Current.
Mensik says he doesn't feel the need to exert his power of prior review because of his collaborative relationship with Hajek.
Hajek says she feels lucky she doesn't have to provide full articles for advanced screening, and she and her assistants try to guide students through a thorough decision-making process when dealing with tough subjects.
"You'd have to decide if this is a battle they want to face, want to fight for," Hajek said. "Is it important to them and the student body to have it in the paper?"
Administrators at Rolling Meadows High School also don't review the student paper, The Pacer, but like at other schools, adviser Stan Zoller alerts administrators if there will be something controversial. He said a good line of communication and responsible journalism can help avoid problems.
"(Administrators) have trusted the advisers to put out quality publications, and we've done that," he says. "We're going to do things that aren't always going to work … and since this is a class we sit back and reflect when we need to and move on from there."
Elsewhere, though, officials say they need to double-check what's going to be printed if the high school assumes legal and financial responsibility for the paper.
Administrators at Wheaton Warrenville South review The Pride before it's published, but adviser Cindy Hildebrand says there's been little the staff has been asked to change this year -- some inappropriate language and an issue officials thought was not covered fairly.
Assistant Principal Phil Britton says he looks over the paper in advance to avoid running into problems other schools have encountered. He says he's not afraid of publishing articles he or others disagree with but occasionally feels it's necessary to tone down the rhetoric students may use.
"There are ways for people to include ideas or issues that are controversial and still do it in a way that's acceptable to the community," Britton says. "They may not like to hear something going on among students, but if (students) say it in the right way, (the community) can at least listen to you."
Power of review
Reviewing the newspaper in advance doesn't necessarily mean there won't be trouble.
In 2005, Wheaton Warrenville South officials refused to print a column urging gay students to come out because of alleged safety and privacy concerns. They said they wanted the school to remain neutral on such issues.
Censorship of the piece caused fierce public outcry from some teachers and students. The Daily Herald wrote about the controversy at the time and, with the student's permission, also published the column in question.
St. Charles East officials didn't have prior review of their paper, X-Ray, until after a mistake appeared in the December issue that sparked a controversy, though longtime adviser Laura Smith did not elaborate on the situation.
While it's still too soon to say how the new policy will play out, Smith, also the secretary of the Northern Illinois Scholastic Press Association, says in most cases the acceptability of prior review depends on the motives of administrators.
"When you get an administrator whose concern is just being aware of what's going on in the newspaper -- so if there's going to be a community concern they are ready to address them -- that's only fair," Smith says. "When you get an administrator who wants to turn the newspaper into a public relations device, I think that's inappropriate."
Legal experts have differing opinions on how much authority administrators can exert over school newspapers.
Martin Redish, professor of constitutional law at Northwestern University, has said a school has the right to exercise control over its paper.
"That was argued a while back, and the Supreme Court has made it quite clear a school newspaper, even a public school newspaper, is speaking on behalf of the school and the school administration has for all practical purposes total control over its content," Redish says.
But Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, says the amount of control a public school can exercise depends on how the paper is structured. If it's a public forum, he says, school officials would have a more difficult time justifying censorship.
"If students are using the newspaper to incite people to violence, incite people to disrupt classes, that would be outside the protection of the First Amendment and the principal could censor that speech," LoMonte says. "But just because something is controversial or unpleasant, or makes some segment of readership unhappy, it's not going to constitute material disruption that justifies censorship."
The final word
To ease such tension, Aimone recommends newspaper advisers educate their administrators about First Amendment laws as they apply to student journalism and that the newspaper staffs, in turn, use their freedom responsibly.
"It's important for a democracy, important for society, important for learning of students to know they have a voice and are expected to be responsible within the law but also be given opportunity within the law to demonstrate they can handle that," Aimone said.
Kane, meanwhile, says she has no regrets about running the stories on drug use. She continues to believe the profanity they included did not cross any lines.
She says her newspaper staff went through extensive training, and while she would not allow them to produce something she felt was illegal or unethical, beyond that the decisions always were left up to the students.
"That's why the paper has been so successful over the last 19 years, because they truly own this paper," Kane says. "I'm the final edit, their sounding board. I'm their guidance.
"But I don't decide what they're going to run on every page; I don't decide the angle on every story they're going to do. That's not my job."
Copyright 2008, Daily Herald. Reprinted with permission