Getting in the way of student press freedom

Bear Schmidt poses by the Oct.-Nov. 2016 (needlessly adviser-censored) Steinmetz Star.

I failed my students. I didn’t stand up for their rights.

The Oct.-Nov. 2016 Steinmetz Star was the first issue (second paper of the year, but first with real stuff), that the students and I produced, aware of the protections of their speech under the July 2016 Illinois Speech Rights of Student Journalists Act. But we didn’t fully use its protections.

The slightly censored issue of the Steinmetz Star — 20-pages of student centered news, opinion, arts & entertainment and sports — produced by two journalism classes and a newspaper club.

Under this law, students have a legally protected right to choose their content. Only material that is libelous, obscene, invasive of privacy, or likely to provoke disruptive or unlawful behavior can the principal legally censor.

So, while the school principal may get this, he succeeded in having something he didn’t like removed — not by censoring, but by convincing most of the students (and me) to self-censor.

So, yeah, it’s my fault. For this issue, I had continued the practice of sending him pages before we sent the document to the printer. I thought I would do it as a courtesy because he asked for it, even though it is something we no longer have to do, under the law.

What happened?

Four paragraphs on the opinion page brought him up to my classroom, where for nearly 50 minutes he tried to convince the journalism students that that piece would hurt the image of the school, which could lead to more declining enrollment, which would lead to more cuts and which could lead to a school takeover by the board.

The student who wrote the four-paragraph column (about sometimes feeling miserable), the Star’s co-editors-in-chief and I agreed to take it out.

See bottom left for report…

But by the end of the day I realized that I had failed this first test of press freedom. I stood in the way of the students who could have insisted on their rights.

Next issue…we’ll run with it, I hope. It being whatever the student staff decide. I kept telling the students that was the case, until we got to the deadline and I dealt poorly with requests to censor student work.

So, next time… what? I’m sure students will continue to practice sound journalism. That’s the tradition of the Star and what I’m being paid to teach. But for the content of the next paper? Hopefully, I will move further back and get out of their way.

The little piece my student wrote, the four paragraphs that caused all the concern?

It was originally included in the Steinmetz Star Staff Opinion section of the paper (shown above), but when we took it out of the paper, the student still published it on a blog and maybe he’ll update it for the next issue.

I’m not sure why there is always drama with the Star, which, by the way, is one of the best high school newspapers in Chicago. Yeah, I say that a lot, but it is something to brag about.

After this Local School Council resolution against press freedom was brought to the Steinmetz LSC by the principal and passed by the council, I tried to show everyone that there is a difference between student publications — kids writing for kids — and school public relations.

For the first issue of the year, the students and I created the September 2016 Steinmetz Star to be a marketing paper, to our new and prospective students.

Later, for report card pick-up, I created a principal newsletter for the school’s public relations.

But during the fall, students covered stories that have real consequence to them, and we published their Steinmetz Star, of which the purpose is not marketing, but information.

Of course, the Local School Council didn’t like the stories about the uniform policy, first published on the Steinmetz Star website. They had to go into “closed session” at the Nov. 16, 2016, meeting, to talk about the stories and journalism at Steinmetz (I think, I wasn’t there).

I sent council members an email the next day that included the brilliant Student Press Law Center memo by Frank LoMonte

But the concern about perception bit the students anyhow. Of course it would. And I failed to stand up for the reporter’s and the other students’ press freedom by allowing the censorship.

I’m going to promise that next time I’ll do better. I’ve got a lot of press freedom heroes in my life, including the big guy I sleep next to every night, Substance editor George Schmidt.