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Op-Ed: Protecting Freedom of the Press — Starting in Middle School

In this age of fake news, students can’t learn too soon to fight editorial censorship

walter bowne
Walter Bowne

At the Garden State Scholastic Press Association conference at Rutgers, a week before Halloween last year, Alfred P. Doblin, the editorial page editor of “The Record,” asked the student journalists whether any of them had faced censorship. Hands shot up.

One by one, students discussed various stories that the administrations refused to print.

One student journalist said how her newspaper wanted to run a story about teenage pregnancy, but the school officials thought such a story “was not appropriate for a school newspaper.”

Doblin asked, “How did your adviser feel about the story?”

“She wanted to keep her job,” the student replied.

The journalism adviser has a right to worry. Advisers must promote, encourage, and support the freedom of speech of students. And yet, advisers are part of an institution that may not like or agree with what is printed.

What, then, should an adviser do when school officials employ prior restraint? Under the threat of this rather dubious euphemism for censorship, advisers are caught between two storms: supporting the Constitution and covering his or her own derriere.

From Pemberton, NJ, to Neshaminy, PA, from North Hunterdon to Northern Highlands, censorship is a serious concern. Even at the national level, we hear calls against journalists and newspapers.

That’s why it’s essential to support a New Jersey bill, co-sponsored by Assemblywoman Gail Phoebus (R-Sussex) and Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), that would protect students and advisers from administrative censorship. It would “prohibit school districts and public universities from authorizing prior restraint of school-sponsored media.”  The bill, A4028, has not yet been posted for the Assembly Education Committee.

I have seen my own daughters face censorship. As a seventh grader at Clearview Middle School in Mullica Hill, Madeline won second place in C-SPANs annual StudentCam competition for a documentary on Math Education Reform. She interviewed math teachers and school officials and college professors. With a taste for journalism, and a growing sense of student empowerment, she wanted to bring back the student newspaper.

Clearview made news in 1994 in Desilets v. Clearview Regional Board of Education when school officials censored a movie review for the film “Mississippi Burning” because it was R-rated.

I told Madeline of the school’s history of suppressing student voices. “So good luck with that,” I said.

She gathered a few other budding Nora Ephrons and Joan Didions to publish the first edition. Madeline wrote an editorial critical of homogeneous grouping. The administration refused to publish the piece. “You restrict this, you restrict my rights as an American,” she said.

By mid-November, we moved to Cherry Hill. The Clearview Middle edition was its last edition. But Madeline continued her success with C-SPAN, as well as becoming video editor at the award-winning student newspaper Eastside. She also earned one of the top awards for journalism in New Jersey, the Bob Stevens Scholarship.

My younger daughter, Nancy, however, as the editor-in-chief of her middle-school newspaper, was not encouraged to pursue a story about eliminating world language programs at the middle school. For a history documentary, she interviewed top scholars about John Brown, and made it to Nationals in Washington, D.C., but locally she was discouraged from interviewing school officials and students and parents. I believe the adviser was either scared or just didn’t want the controversy, which makes sense. It’s a hostile environment out there for advisers.

Walter Bowne is a writer and teacher from South Jersey.

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