High school censors, destroys student newspaper with school-violence theme

Thursday, May 10, 2001

For weeks, Annie Gilsdorf and the staff of the Devil's Advocate compiled stories and graphics for an extensive examination of school violence at Hinsdale Central High School and abroad.

They found statistics to compare the demographics of their suburban Chicago school with that of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., the site of the infamous schoolyard massacre two years ago. They interviewed everyone from Principal Jim Ferguson to the school security guard about efforts to prevent violence on campus. They explained Illinois' gun laws and the ease with which nearly anyone can become a gun owner.

So when the day came to distribute the edition to their classmates, the student journalists, especially Gilsdorf, were quite excited about their work.

But that excitement waned when Gilsdorf stepped out of her third-period class and was told by another newspaper staffer that the principal had seized the latest edition.

Her first thought: “Oh, no. He's seen the f-word!”

The word didn't appear in the series on school violence but in an arts-related article deep inside that edition. Even then, the word wasn't spelled out, but was replaced with dashes, a practice they had seen in many daily newspapers. A dashed-out profanity hardly seemed a reason, Gilsdorf thought, for Ferguson to confiscate an entire press run of their newspaper.

And the paper's adviser had seen and approved the edition before it went to press.

But later that day, the Devil's Advocate staff learned that Ferguson had a problem with what he thought was a tabloid-style presentation of the school-violence series.

“All of us were in shock,” Gilsdorf said, “because we didn't think there was a story in there that would be pushing buttons.”

As lead writer for the series, Gilsdorf knew that the edition's release date, April 20, marked the second anniversary of the campus killings at Columbine High School, where two students opened fire on their classmates, killing 12 students and a teacher before shooting themselves.

But what Gilsdorf didn't know was that morning administrators were reporting absenteeism twice the normal rate for the school because some parents feared for their children's safety. After seeing the cover of that morning's Devil's Advocate, Ferguson thought the school-violence series would only fuel the anxiety.

Ferguson didn't have a problem with the bulk of the edition, but he questioned why the students compared Hinsdale with Columbine. And he was particularly disturbed about some front-page graphics, including images of bullet-ridden school crossing signs and a television view of a gun-toting student standing in front of a school.

That was too much for Ferguson, said Charla Russell, director of community relations for the school.

“He did not allow the release of the newspaper because it would only contribute to the fear,” Russell said in a telephone interview. “To keep distributing this paper would have been out of place with the mission of this school.”

But she said Ferguson gave the students a choice: Release a revised edition or kill it.

The students opted for the latter. School officials destroyed the complete press run a week later.

“We felt changing the newspaper in any way would be disrespectful to everything we stand for,” Gilsdorf said.

“We thought the graphics were extremely appropriate to go with a very serious series of stories,” she said. “If we believed that the paper posed a threat to the school, not only wouldn't we have distributed it, we wouldn't have published it in the first place.”

The U.S. Supreme Court, in its landmark ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, determined that school officials could regulate school-sponsored publications, provided they showed a legitimate educational purpose for doing so. But the court wrote that if school officials had deemed such publications a “public forum” for students, they would have a more difficult time imposing prior review.

Gilsdorf, who will serve as the newspaper's editor in chief next year, said the Devil's Advocate had operated for years without prior review. The paper's masthead even carries a disclaimer noting itself as a public forum.

Although the students have sought legal help through the Student Press Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union, they aren't eager to file a challenge in court. In the meantime, they are exploring ways to post the complete issue, graphics included, on a Web site.

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said he'd seen a copy of the questionable issue and called the students' work “quality journalism.” He said he was disappointed that the principal pulled the issue when it was full of responsible and well-researched articles.

“It's an excuse for covering up something the school would rather not discuss,” Goodman said in a telephone interview. “And this is especially troubling because this is such a great high school newspaper. A decade of independence has been destroyed by this one action.”

Gilsdorf says she's disappointed because the newspaper staff had wanted to produce a paper to make their fellow students really think about the affect of violence in schools today.

“We thought it was an important story to tell them,” she said. “Obviously, we won't have that opportunity.”

Tags: , , , ,