Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

What’s the Price of Censorship?

January 17, 2010

It turns out censorship can be costly -- not just in terms of the free exchange of ideas but also in terms of cold, hard cash. The Fallbrook Union High School District, in southern California, recently settled a censorship case over articles the high school principal withheld from the student newspaper. The district's agreement: a $7,500 payment to the school's former journalism teacher and $20,000 to the American Civil Liberties Union.

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. 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 former senior producer.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • English Language Arts
  • Social Studies/History
  • 9-12 High School

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