HSJ Headline News
Journalism teachers need protection, too
The Des Moines (Iowa) Register
September 1, 2009
In a lot of ways, student journalists in Iowa are lucky.
Iowa is one of nine states that have enacted explicit laws and regulations to ensure students are protected from unlawful censorship, and our state universities have some of the strongest student newspapers in the country.
Yet despite the strong protections students receive from state law, many school district officials and administrators are still attempting to indirectly censor students - to silence them through intimidating their teachers with threats of reassignments or transfers.
You might think that in Iowa, the birthplace of student free-expression rights in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, principals would know better. Yet, as my colleagues on the Johnston school board and I found out while researching the issue, there have been numerous examples in our own backyard of this form of indirect censorship.
According to information provided by Quill & Scroll (an international honor society for high school journalists based at the University of Iowa), examples of advisers being punished come from every corner of the state. These instances range from an adviser in a rural district seeking early retirement, to journalism teachers leaving the state seeking principals less likely to retaliate, to students self-censoring their work to make sure their favorite teacher gets to keep her job.
I've even had personal experience with attempts to intimidate students into self-censorship. In 2005, after writing a column critical of Johnston school board member Robert Cramer for my high school newspaper, Cramer sent a sharply-worded letter to our principal, the newspaper adviser and myself. This letter, seemingly designed to intimidate us into not covering Cramer and the board critically, demanded that the principal order us to retract the story, and said it was "inappropriate" for the student newspaper to cover the board in such a light.
Although Cramer left the board following an investigation by the Iowa Campaign Ethics Board and a write-in campaign to defeat him, his actions stand out in my mind as demonstrating exactly why journalism teachers need protection from retaliation based on what their students write. I'll be the first to admit that after receiving that letter, my colleagues on the newspaper staff and I had serious concerns about what Cramer might do to punish one of our favorite teachers.
As students, we were put in the difficult position of having to choose between continuing to win state championships for our occasionally "controversial" coverage, or writing fluffy, "positive" stories to make sure this school board member would stop making demands about what our newspaper would be allowed to write.
Of course, students and teachers aren't the only ones to reap benefits from adviser-protection policies. Putting a law or policy on the books to prevent retaliation against teachers gives administrators something to point to when parents and board members start demanding they fire journalism teachers - rather than forcing administrators to try to explain the importance of the First Amendment and the vision of the founding fathers. Community members also earn dividends, as they continue to receive the unique perspective on youth issues presented by student newspapers and yearbooks.
The state Legislature should take a cue from California, where last year legislators nearly unanimously passed the "Journalism Teacher Protection Act" on a 107-3 vote. An amendment to the Iowa student free-press law already on the books could close this loophole to back-door censorship statewide, and make certain Iowa's reputation for strong scholastic journalism remains unvarnished.
Until then, it's the responsibility of school districts to close this avenue to censorship.
In Johnston, we passed a policy earlier this year to give protection to employees involved in supervising student free speech. Although there were strong disagreements - and a lot of misunderstandings - on our board, the majority of us agreed on the importance of protecting teachers.
Now, it's time for other districts to step up: Ensure all Iowa journalism teachers are safe from unfair retaliation based on student reporters doing their job.
Copyright 2009, The Des Moines (Iowa) Register. Reprinted with permission