Wisconsin High School Student Writes Investigative Story On School’s “Rape Culture” . . . Principal Censors Article And Takes Over Newspaper

IMG_5886210px-FondDuLacHighSchoolEntranceWe have been discussing a variety of stories lately that reflect the rapidly shrinking free speech rights of students, including a recent column. A story out of Wisconsin shows just how arbitrary administrators have become in stomping out students engaging in free speech and student press rights. Fond du Lac High School senior Tanvi Kumar showed precisely the type of courage and creativity that we want to instill in the young. While other kids were at the Mall and fighting over fashions, Kumar wrote an investigative piece that documents what was described as a “rape culture” at the school. The school officials immediately moved to censor and block the publication — joining a growing population of draconian administrators teaching students to yield to arbitrary authority. In this case, Fond du Lac High School Principal Jon Wiltzius was able to gut principles of free speech and free press in one overarching authoritarian gesture.


The controversy began with the February issue of Cardinal Columns that featured a story titled: “The Rape Joke.” It featured stories of three rape victims, but concealed their identities. Wiltzius halted publication and told the journalism class that they can only publish with his approval: “My job is to oversee the global impact of everything that occurs within our school and I have to ensure I am representing everyone and there was some questionable content.”

Superintendent Dr. James Sebert specifically took issue with a picture on the inside cover that shows a woman described as “laying lifeless” in the middle of cardboard boxes. On that page the editors explain the cover photo selection process and why they rejected that (laying lifeless) picture for the cover. The editors had rejected the photo for the cover and explained their editorial reasons for its placement in the publication. You can see the photo here.

Sebert also objected to a graphic description of the types of rape a student endured and a Pledge of Allegiance editorial that instructs students on their rights to not stand during the Pledge. The latter objection is particularly curious since student have a right not to participate in the pledge of allegiance.

Kumar and other students have objected to the censorship. Kumar noted that the truly disturbing content is exhibited by people at high school, including a student-run twitter account called “Ethan the Rapist,” that pokes fun at a very specific rape incident and rape in general. The piece was so well done that teachers had been reading the article to their classes as examples of excellence in journalism. Outsiders like Vince Filak, a professor of journalism at University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh who has lectured at the school, said that he read the article searching for some inappropriate material and found none.

HayesReceptionHowever, professional journalists and teachers matter little in this district. School Board President Elizabeth Hayes (right) said she objected to the headline “The Rape Joke” because people might not understand it. She felt that same objections to the article on the Pledge of Allegiance: “This publication is supported by taxpayer funds and it should be held to a high standard. And we should also be encouraging students to hold high standards of respect.” I am not sure that we should be teaching students to cater their articles to a level that Ms. Hayes will understand or find unobjectionable. To the contrary, these students appear to have acted in a far more mature and inspiring fashion than the adult administrators.

I recommend the article as a worthy read (here). This is a fine student publication and they should be proud of this product. Indeed, if Kumar wishes to use this forum for publication, we will be happy to publish the article.

Justice_White_OfficialThe Supreme Court has led the erosion of student speech. In Hazelwood School District et al. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988), the Court voted 5-3 that public school curricular student newspapers do not have the full protection of the first amendment and may be censored by school officials. That case also involved a taboo subject that made administrators uncomfortable. The Spectrum, a student newspaper at Hazelwood East High School in the Hazelwood School District in St. Louis County, Missouri was censured by principal Robert Eugene Reynolds who objected to a story concerning teen pregnancy. The ruling was rollback on the victory for free speech in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. The blow was delivered by Associate Justice Byron White who often sided with government power over civil liberties. He held that “[a] school need not tolerate student speech that is inconsistent with its basic educational mission, even though the government could not censor similar speech outside the school.”

150px-US_Supreme_Court_Justice_William_Brennan_-_1976_official_portraitIt was (as usual) Associate Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. who spoke for free speech and student rights: “The young men and women of Hazelwood East expected a civics lesson, but not the one the Court teaches them today . . . Such unthinking contempt for individual rights is intolerable from any state official. It is particularly insidious from (a school principal) to whom the public entrusts the task of inculcating in its youth an appreciation for the cherished democratic liberties that our constitution guarantees.”

The Court has continued this attack on student rights. Such was the case in the Morse decision. Juneau-Douglas High School student Joseph Frederick was suspended by JDHS Principal Deb Morse in 2002 during the Olympic Torch Relay for holding up a 14-foot banner across from the high school that read “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.” The case ultimately led to the Supreme Court which ruled in Morse v. Frederick ruling in 2007 for the Board — a decision that I strongly disagreed with and one that has encouraged over-reaching by school officials into protected areas. For a copy of the Morse decision, click here.

At a time when many children are game-obsessed and disconnected, you have high school students here with the courage to look at a taboo subject and make it accessible for other students. The response of the school teaches an entirely different lesson about conformity and authority. Indeed, the board and administrators appear to want the students to write to the lowest common denominator on the least controversial subjects. That will certainly make their lives easier, but it does little to advance the true education and development of these students.

I understand the need to exercise some control over publications just as editors exercise such control outside of the school settings. Given the age of the writers and the readers, the level of control is necessarily enhanced. However, this strikes me as a content-based act of censorship that reflects the subject matter and not the manner of writing.

What do you think?

70 thoughts on “Wisconsin High School Student Writes Investigative Story On School’s “Rape Culture” . . . Principal Censors Article And Takes Over Newspaper”

  1. The “problem” with the Pledge of Allegience was revealed in the local newspaper on March 12. Fond du Lac High School students protest new censorship mandate for school publication (story, video)

    Freedumb and feality:

    The most recent edition raised some questions in my mind after reading it as to interference with the educational process, educational environment, and the rights of other students,” Sebert (Superintendent Dr. James Sebert) said in an email to The Reporter.

    He points to aspects of “The Rape Joke” article — which includes some graphic description of the types of rape a student endured, a letter from the editors called “The Punchline,” and a Pledge of Allegiance editorial that instructs students on their rights to not stand during the Pledge as questionable material for a school publication. Sebert said he and Wiltzius met with Matthew Smith, the print journalism teacher at the high school and adviser to the magazine’s staff, to discuss the issues.

    Feality and freedumb:

    School Board President Elizabeth Hayes said she objected to the headline “The Rape Joke” because people might not understand it, as well as the article on the Pledge of Allegiance.

    “This publication is supported by taxpayer funds and it should be held to a high standard,” Hayes said. “And we should also be encouraging students to hold high standards of respect.”

  2. The Wisconsin Soapbox has a new post today on the Fond du Lac school newspaper. The entire issue in question is now posted online. There is a link at the new Wisconsin Soapbox post. Lots of new information on the controversy, and what the real issue apparently is. The Pledge of Allegience editorial which appeared in the same issue.

    “After the opening question the interview gets really interesting. Chuckles asks what exactly it was that prompted backlash from the district over the latest edition of the newspaper, and Mr. Wiltzius says that it really wasn’t the topic of “The Rape Joke” column. What concerned people were the pictures inside the paper, the representation of students in the paper (who openly spoke with the reporters about their topic), and then the editorial column which suggested to students that they challenge the school and their teacher in not standing for the Pledge of Allegiance if they don’t want to, as it is their right.”

    Saturday, March 15, 2014
    The FDL Student Newspaper Kerfuffle Has Grown

    Having viewed the whole issue, and being more than a little familiar with the area, there is probably a large degree of local “conservative values” butthurt over the pledge of allegience editorial imo.

    Censored and seized for an editorial about the Pledge of Allegience. Because both feality to higher powers and freedumb. Welcome to the internets Fond du Lac. Are you ready for your 15 minutes?

  3. I’ve been trying to understand what the principal found objectionable. I think he objected to the outing of the “rape joke” and the rape culture in the school b/c it shines a light on a problem HE should have been addressing. This is really too bad b/c what the article shows, is that the school has produced some excellent students who saw a problem and then were proactive in doing something about.

    Why didn’t he know about the rape culture? Why didn’t he know about the “rape joke”? Why didn’t he know about the “Ethan the rapist” twitter account? Did he know that at least 3 students had been raped and that at least one was a target? The article makes him look out of touch with what’s going on in the school. He may also be sexually repressed and anything about sex gives him the heebie-jeebies.

  4. Home can be like a prison to some children.

    Meantime in the real world oftentimes both spouses salary is needed or in the case of a single parent, the parent needs to work and cannot homeschool. I wouldn’t suggest these parents don’t care about their children every bit as much as the homeschool parent.

  5. To censor means to prevent publication or distribution. This administrator did not censor this article but reserved the right to censor future articles. He actually did more to increase circulation by taking the newspaper staff to task after publication and distribution.

    I read about this yesterday and saw an interview of the newspaper staff, very articulate and mature young people. Can’t seem to find it right now. A great blog post on the controversy. http://wisoapbox.blogspot.com/2014/03/how-far-is-too-far-issue-of-rape-in.html

  6. Serenity now!!! I have said here, maybe 57 times @ least, that I deplore lobbyists, money, controlling elections. Please right a post-it and put it on your computer. Or, is this some type of brainwashing. Because I’ll give it up, I’ll talk! Just, please stop.

  7. This is a “jump ball” situation. The winner depends on the Educational Reward. I guess that has to be determined by someone other than the writer – would you not say ?

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