We 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.
However, 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.
The 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.”
It 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?