Subtle Censorship: The Problem of Retaliation against High School Journalism Advisers and Three Ways to Stop It

By Buller, Tyler J. | Journal of Law and Education, October 2011 | Go to article overview

Subtle Censorship: The Problem of Retaliation against High School Journalism Advisers and Three Ways to Stop It


Buller, Tyler J., Journal of Law and Education


ABSTRACT

This Article explores whether the problem of retaliation against high school journalism advisers is best addressed through courts, local school boards or state legislatures. Student journalists across the United States are threatened by a new, more-subtle form of censorship. Instead of principals cutting articles out of student newspapers or threatening expulsion for controversial editorials, student journalists' most-trusted confidant and ally-their journalism adviser-is under fire, facing retaliation by school officials through discipline, reassignment, and even termination. This retaliation exploits a loophole in student journalists' protections, results in indirect censorship and chills student speech. After comparing the alternatives, this Article argues that the best path to ending retaliation against journalism advisers is through state legislatures adopting statutes that prohibit adviser-retaliation, grant students a cause of action, and require local school districts to adopt consistent policies protecting student publications.

I. INTRODUCTION

The war between student journalists and their would-be censors is never-ending. As long as students speak their minds and adults seek to silence them, school officials will continue to erect barriers inhibiting a free and vibrant student press. Although students in some states have stalwart defenses to direct attacks by way of state statutes and constitutional provisions, these protections have not ended the battle or even caused a ceasefire that would allow the student press to thrive. Instead, school officials have merely shifted the battlefield and changed their tactics, setting their sights on a target students rely on as trusted confidant: journalism advisers. This new breed of indirect censorship- retaliation against advisers- allows school officials to bypass students' defenses against direct censorship and causes very real consequences: the chilling of student speech.

Although names like Amy Sorrell, Terry Nelson, and Janet Ewell are virtually unknown outside the field of scholastic journalism, they are hero-martyrs among student-press advocates: they are journalism advisers whose careers have been laid siege or destroyed by administrators attempting to silence students through adviser-retaliation. Their stories put a human face on the victims of adviser-retaliation. Amy Sorrell was placed on administrative leave and reassigned after one of her student writers published a four-paragraph column promoting tolerance of gay high school students.1 Terry Nelson was fired after "allowing" her student newspaper's editorial board to protect the identity of an author that submitted a critical letter-to-the-editor.2 And Janet Ewell was confronted by her principal and removed from advising after her students wrote critical editorials concerning cafeteria food and dirty bathrooms.3 All of these advisers' experiences tell a startlingly similar story: student journalists write something that administrators do not like and the journalism adviser is retaliated against to silence the students.

Although it may be tempting to dismiss this problem as trivial, student journalism deserves consideration and support. In many ways, student journalists parallel their professional counterparts: they subscribe to model codes of ethics,4 are members of professional organizations,5 and make decisions about news and editorial coverage.6 Admittedly, not every student publication is a bastion of enlightening, quality journalism. For every publication that chronicles the complex problem of white flight, advocates well-considered editorial positions on sex education, and offers carefully considered political endorsements in upcoming elections,7 there may be another that exists solely to air grievances between jocks and the resident glee club or debate the finer points of Justin Bieber's haircut. But, regardless of whether these publications churn out content adult readers find interesting, they deserve protection from censorship. …

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