Trying to stifle student reporting just won’t work

Wanna keep a secret? Betcha can’t – particularly when it involves an arrest and later the resignation of a local teacher.

But when allegations of improper conduct involving a teacher are involved, principals still keep trying to stifle the news through the heavy-handed – and futile – method of censoring the school publication.

The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Ky., reported a few days ago on student journalists at the city’s duPont Manual High School who were attempting to report on the March arrest of a female teacher reported to have been found partially undressed in a car with an unidentified 17-year-old boy.

Visit the online student publication Even to the first-time visitor, it’s clear that this news operation is serious about its work – from Kentucky Derby coverage to video documentaries, online polling and editorials such as “Why I lost faith in the president I adored” and “United Nations needs to do more for Libyan people.” One recent news story reported on how flooding along the Ohio River had affected students.

So it’s no surprise that a RedEye journalist recently submitted a one-paragraph account of basic facts about the charge against the teacher and noting her resignation.

Principal Larry Wooldridge rejected that one paragraph, The Courier-Journalreported. The principal countered with his own toned-down version, which said only that the teacher had quit and that Manual was seeking a replacement, the C-J said.

A follow-up article by the first writer and another RedEye reporter focused on student reaction and other state examples of misconduct by teachers with students, and included advice on how students could avoid such exploitation. Wooldridge also is reported to have rejected that story.

Let’s get some basics out of the way. Yes, students are not experts, and a knowledgeable faculty adviser can help them understand a complex legal system, avert journalistic missteps and avoid libel actions. And yes, state and federal laws have given school authorities increasing authority to act as censors – if they can prove later that they had a valid, supportable reason to foresee a substantial disruption of school, or that other students’ rights would have been violated by the speech or writing they censored.

Embarrassment, however, is not among the reasons the Supreme Court has permitted in allowing school administrators to silence student journalists. Nor does potential damage to a school’s reputation justify this kind of direct violence to the First Amendment rights of student journalists and their readers.

And to what end, this latest incident of school censorship? Did blocking the RedEye stories silence the talk about the resignation? Of course not.

Even if there ever was time when a principal could stifle comment on such a story by saying “no comment,” that time is long gone in the era of tweets, e-mails, blogs and Facebook. As it happens, at least one Louisville-area community blogger has written that he carried a report of the original incident back in March.

Time to ask once again: What is a better alternative in this admittedly awkward situation? A factual account of the news, and a follow-up story that includes positive advice to students who might face unwanted conduct by a teacher or other adult? Or rumors, supposition and worse, produced by gossips who don’t have a faculty adviser or sense of professionalism?

Student news media taken seriously will respond in serious fashion – producing news that schools, staff and students can use, as well as providing useful lessons in fairness, accuracy and media literacy.

Even for the teacher involved, a fair and honest report would seem preferable to unsavory whispers and rumors.

But what have students learned at duPont Manual from this incident? Not a whit about the value of their and our First Amendment freedoms, to be sure.

Gene Policinski is senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 1207 18th Ave. S., Nashville, Tenn., 37212. Web: E-mail: [email protected]

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