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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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What's the Price of Censorship?

A settlement doesn't amount to proof of wrongdoing -- only a real trial could determine that. But legal details aside, censorship of the student press is unsettling and should raise a red flag in the school community. (See an Edutopia.org poll from 2006 on schools censoring student publications.) Most disturbing in the Fallbrook case: The school's journalism program has been canceled and, even now, remains so. (News reports give no clear reason for this turn of events.)

The Fallbrook school officials said inaccuracies in reporting were the reason for blocking the articles (a news story on the superintendent's resignation and an editorial on the district's abstinence-only sex education program) -- a tried-and-true complaint about journalism that is sometimes valid and sometimes just shorthand for "I don't like what you're printing." As a daily newspaper reporter for several years, I experienced plenty of the latter.

There are surely certain things that student papers shouldn't publish -- like, say, pornography or hate speech -- but having one censor behind closed doors decide what can and cannot be printed robs young journalists of important learning opportunities and opens the door to the squashing of student speech. In professional journalism, even publishers typically don't do that.

Student journalists do need to learn the power of their words and the paramount importance of accuracy. However, outright censoring of their content teaches none of that. In fact, it eliminates the opportunity to learn that lesson and instead teaches students that they are small, powerless, and not to be trusted. (In the age of the Internet, it's also unlikely to stop the sensitive information or opinions from reaching the public eye.)

Even if, as Fallbrook school officials asserted, the article on the superintendent's resignation contained inaccuracies, there are real-life consequences to that kind of error that pack a potent lesson. It's embarrassing to have to admit an error and print a correction. I have done it.

And in the case of the banned editorial, it's hard to believe there could be libel or slander in students' opinions about sex education. Touchy subject? Yes. And a profoundly important one where students' views should count.

Learning journalism without free speech is like learning science without conducting any experiments. It's a canned, fake form of the discipline that limits students' ability to experience its important nuances and dilemmas.

That said, it makes sense for teenagers to have guidance from experienced adults as they begin to navigate these challenges. How much oversight should schools exercise over the student press? When and how should they draw the line?

-- Grace Rubenstein, is a senior producer. To read more of Grace's work, click here.

Comments (7)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Andrew Pass's picture

One of the reasons that I really like Edutopia is that it is not afraid to take a side on an important issue. I fully agree that student papers should rarely if ever be censored. But, do you really want students to learn to avoid mistakes by apologizing afterwards? Or instead perhaps you could hold up the publication of an article until as many errors as possible have been corrected?

Andrew Pass
My Current Events Blog

Grace Rubenstein's picture
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia
Blogger 2014

Andrew -- Good suggestion, thanks! I think that could be one in an arsenal of strategies for keeping student journalists out of serious trouble without unilaterally censoring them. As for your question about apologies: the ideal thing is certainly to coach students on how to avoid factual mistakes. But when they happen (as they do at even the foremost professional news outlets), there is nothing so educational as having to make a public mea culpa. Ouch.

teacherintheroom's picture

While I am certainly not advocating censorship, this story is outrageous!

I do not see where freedom of speech was restrained here. If the student and journalism teacher felt the information in the article was vital to the "public interest" then they could have sent their article to any other newspaper to be printed. If their true intent was to share vital information with the public, they could have chosen a variety of venues to do that. And probably with much better circulation.

A hard lesson of journalism to that not everyone wants to read your writing. In this instance, I think instead of turning this into a law suit, it was a "teachable moment" for the student that was missed. The lessons being that not everyone wants to hear what you have to say and also how to deal with rejection. The student could have also had the opportunity to have their work published in a "real" newspaper and then deal with the scrutiny of their editing process. However, that opportunity was lost.

Instead, I fear that the lesson this student learned was that regardless of the quality of your work, it has to be printed if you want it; and if someone says no, file a lawsuit.

Public education is a right of all students. Being allowed to print whatever you want in a school newspaper is not a right, it is a privilege that should be respected. Students are guided by their teachers who can and should edit and censor their work when they feel it is in the best interest of the school community at large. Otherwise, where do you draw the line? What if the story was about the student witnessing two teachers kissing in the parking lot? Or what if they found a private communication between the principal and teachers about a possible bomb threat?

Schools are communities and communities need to have rules that are in the best interest of keeping the school environment safe and conducive to learning. If the administration felt that what the student wrote was counterproductive to that, or inflammatory in anyway, they were well within their right to keep the article from being printed. And even if they didnt, ultimately, the school administrator should have the final say in anything that is printed that represents the school in anyway. That is why they are in charge, not the students.

All I see in this story is another example of "the inmates running the asylum".

bluestar's picture

You made the choice to go drive and pick him up so dont put the blame on him. Even though you were trying to carpet tiles be nice. You gotta get rid of him fast. He will go away eventually, just keep avoiding him.

Brad S.'s picture

You make an important point. Students need to learn the power of free speech and there is no better way to do that than to allow them to wield it. They will find that with this idea comes great responsibility. But that is a lesson that needs to be learned through experience. While I do not teach journalism, censorship in class work is something I have struggled with in my career. I teach playwriting in my class, and it grieves me to have to list certain ideas or speech as taboo. I find that it limits creativity and undermines the entire writing process. As a teacher, I understand there are certain standards I am expected to uphold, but the artist in me is extremely uncomfortable with the implications of that. It is up to the artist to deal with community reaction to his or her work. And that may be negative. But that doesn't make the ideas any less relevant.

Ali's picture

When we censor student work we are basically telling them that their creations do not matter. If we do this, why would they ever want to put their creativity and feelings on the line again? If we censor student work on one assignment then they will only write what they think we want to read the next time. How boring!

liza's picture

I am not confirm about the price of the censorship to I have struggled with in my career. I teach playwriting in my class, and it grieves me to have to list certain ideas or speech as taboo. I find that it limits creativity and undermines the entire writing process.
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