Should Students Be Censored? : Supreme Court Ruling Teaches Journalism Pupils Wrong Lesson

Linda Mook is president of the Southern California Journalism Education Assn

When I walked into the high school journalism room last Thursday, under the poster reading dare to speak, write and think was scrawled on notebook paper "except in the high school press--Supreme Court 1988."

Students had not taken their new status as second-class citizens in the United States passively. Trident, the school newspaper at Corona del Mar High School, whose staff I supervise, carried an editorial decrying the Supreme Court's decision to grant school officials broad censorship powers.

Although I had explained how California's statute protected student journalists from censorship except for material that is libelous, obscene or likely to cause substantial disruption, they had difficulty understanding why their right of free expression stopped at the California border--or, for that matter, at the schoolhouse door.

For 17 years I have wrestled with the question of how much press freedom students should exercise in high school, as I watched student editors decide whether to run a story on a classmate convicted of drug dealing, an administrator forced to resign over drunk driving or a class officer suspended for embezzling school funds. I have held editors accountable for editing such sensitive topics as teen sexuality, suicide, child abuse, AIDS education and California's recent abortion decision. Granted both freedom and responsibility for what they write, editors have deliberated, agonized and even shed tears in an effort to balance human compassion against the "public's right to know."

Now, except in California, I could with the Supreme Court's blessing let the principal or school board make the tough decisions. It would certainly make my job easier, I concluded as I reviewed student stories on the Newport-Mesa school board's unpopular vote to support swapping our principal for the principal at rival Newport Harbor.

I speculated: What if the board had declared this a "personnel matter" and banned the topic in the school paper? I could be home reading extensive coverage of these events in The Times and other local media. I wouldn't have to stay late while student reporters called sources to verify facts or endure the lengthy editing process. Yes, my job would certainly be easier.

But I caught myself questioning: Isn't this what teaching journalism is all about? Isn't it my job to provide a realistic setting to practice writing and editing, and to grant students the freedom to deliberate the tough ethical and moral decisions made by editors every day? How can I teach responsibility without freedom? Denying this aspect of journalism is not only unsound educationally, it is downright dangerous.

Newspapers serve as a forum for public discussion of issues--even controversial ones. That forum needs to be available to our future leaders to prepare them for participating in our democratic form of government.

As a teacher in California, I have a choice. I tore off the scrawled note paper. In my classroom, we still dare to speak, write and think.

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