Tuesday, June 10, 2008


So there are these students in Redding, California and as their high school years were coming to a conclusion they made a decision that shocked and horrified school administrators. They ran an editorial in their school newspaper defending any American's right to burn the flag and they ran a photo of a student doing just that right on the front page (see picture).

It was too much for the grown ups to handle.

Sure, the adults said, we understand there is such a thing as freedom of speech, but who are these kids to actually practice it (and wait until you read the bizarre excuses the principal came up with for his actions against the kids and the newspaper in the article below).

Quite a lesson learned for these kids, I'd say.

Unfortunately, of course, such censorship of high school newspapers is hardly uncommon despite our supposed freedom of speech...and it isn't only the kids who pay the price.

Linda Kane's "reassignment" at Naperville Central High School as advisor to the school paper followed the school's student newspaper publishing articles on drug use among students.

The newspaper published three pieces about marijuana, one of which was an anonymous column that used profanity. Principal Jim Caudill called for changing the newspaper's policy on using profanity.

Kane and her student editors refused, noting they had based the policy on guidelines from the Student Press Law Center. A week later, Kane said in a Daily Herald article that Caudill and other administrators "don't know squat" about 1st Amendment law in newspapers. She also said Caudill "is all about PR and doesn't want any bumps in the road."

You can guess how that went over with the tin horn dictator who ran the school.

Caudill asked her to resign as adviser and journalism teacher. She refused and was fired from those positions despite protests from students and parents. Six weeks later, the schools newspaper, the Central Times, finished third in the Illinois High School Association's journalism competition, in a field of 66 schools.

And then there is Eureka (California) High School Principal Robert Steffen who pulled 400 copies of the Redwood Bark student newspaper after the paper's April issue hit the stands. Steffen pulled the newspaper because of a nude drawing by student Natalie Gonzalez in the paper's art section.

Principal Steffen has since "apologized." Still Steffen said in his "apology" he didn't see his action as censorship, and instead called it “restricted circulation.” Redwood Bark staff and some experts in student journalism law thought otherwise.

I could go on and on with examples, but what's the point? None of this can come as a surprise to anyone who ever went to high school. High school is so far from a place for free expression of any kind as to be down right scary. Imagine a country run like your old high school. I'd kind of hoped things had changed over the decades since I was in school, but apparently that isn't the case. It appears that high school administrators remain as afraid of their students "thoughts" today as they did yesterday.

Mark Goodman, holder of the Knight Chair in Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University, says, "I think anybody who's been involved in this issue for any length of time can tell you that there are more censorship conflicts today than at any other time."

No one is keeping score, but Goodman and other 1st Amendment advocates say anecdotal evidence, court rulings and surveys of high school students clearly show a constricting of the students' free speech.

An editorial written by Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Washington, and printed in the Fond du Lac Reporter made a great point:

"Students have become canaries in the free-speech coal mine: We can predict the future health of freedom of speech in America by looking at how public schools live up to — or fail to live up to — the First Amendment."

Right now, there are a lot of sick canaries out there. It's no mystery why so many young people tune out public-policy debates, stay home from the polls and become cynical about their government."

OR maybe they'll learn what I did and fight back against all forms of authoritarianism from those with too much power.

The following rather amazing article is from the Chicago Sun Times.

Flag-burning editorial helps kill school paper in Redding, Calif.

The adviser calls it sabotage, the principal finds it embarrassing and the superintendent is offended.

The students see it all as a matter of freedom of speech.

Shasta High School, in Redding, Calif., published its last issue of the Volcano, the student newspaper, before the end of classes last week with an image on the front page of a student burning the American flag and an editorial inside defending the practice.

"The paper's done," said Milan Woollard, Shasta High principal. "There is not going to be a school newspaper next year."

Shasta had been looking at cutting the paper already -- funds are tight as the school anticipates receiving fewer state dollars from Sacramento this fall, Woollard said.

"This cements that decision," he said.

Judy Champagne, the Volcano's faculty adviser, is upset that some of the students decided to use the newspaper as a platform to engender controversy during the last week of school. Planned for the paper was coverage of Shasta's prom, announcements of scholarship recipients and other news.

Those items made the paper, she said. The editorial and image of flag burning were added at the last minute.

"I think that the students were sabotaging what should have been a positive last issue," she said. "I think it's very sad that we're not going to have a paper."

Upsetting to Champagne, who's been the newspaper's adviser for years, is what she called a lack of news judgment from some of the students on staff. While flag burning may be a salient national issue, she said, nothing has happened recently in northern California to make it a current, local issue.

Until now.

"I thought it was bad journalism," she said.

The editorial, written by Connor Kennedy, who graduated Friday, explained that a person has the right to burn the flag, that it's protected speech under the first amendment. Kennedy did not return a phone call made to his home Monday.

Administrators at the school and district level said students have a right to run the photo and print the editorial under the first amendment, but all of them called it poor judgment.

"I think that they misused (their freedom of speech)," Champagne said. "I think this was a game for them."

Mike Stuart, Shasta Union High School superintendent -- a U.S. Army veteran and paratrooper -- said just because the students have a right to defend and run the image doesn't mean the administration has to approve of it.

"Personally, I find it offensive," he said. "Especially the last newspaper of the year. It's like a parting shot."

Stuart said it showed the students' immaturity.

"I think it was especially self-indulgent," he said. "I don't like it at all."

Kennedy, who won an award from the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution earlier this year for an essay he wrote, was president of Shasta's student union and helped organize a demonstration on campus last fall to protest the high school's decision to combine its junior and senior prom and the vote that led to the decision.

Woollard said he believes Kennedy and other students placed the photo and editorial in the paper simply to get a reaction. And it's what they've got, he said.

"I'm just embarrassed that the thing was ever done," he said.

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