High school students go online to avoid censorship

Thursday, June 29, 2000

From publishing independently to posting stories on online student news services, high school students across the country are turning increasingly to the Web to publish articles important to them and to gain freedom from censorship-prone school administrators.

This is more than a trend among young people for whom computers are a way of life.

It's a way of getting out from under the shackles created in 1988 in the form the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. Student journalists, and many of their advisers and journalism organizations across the country, claim the decision creates the opportunity for principals to suppress legitimate publication by public high school students.

Enter the Internet.

With the Internet's growing popularity, especially among young people, and the students' publication problems, it is no surprise that many teens have begun publishing articles on the Web.

And they are getting help from online news services that have blossomed amid the growing popularity of student Web journalism.

Monette Austin Bailey, editor in chief of Children's Express Worldwide News Service online, said her news site provides young journalists with an alternative to the school newspaper, which in most states falls subject to Hazelwood. (Six states have afforded student journalists greater freedom than does Hazelwood.) Children's Express is an international news service, reported and edited by young people from 8 to 18 for adult print, broadcast and online media. Children's Express articles are carried by newspapers across the country and are included on the New York Times News Service.

Bailey said her news site allows young reporters to write about controversial topics that are pertinent to the average teen-ager.

“Many of our kids have said they like working for Children's Express because we allow them to do what interests them, not what the adults are interested in,” she said. “They are able to pursue a story on, say, date rape, without being worried that we'll kill the idea before it even gets to the interviewing stage. We do warn them that our subscribers may not run the story, but that doesn't mean we won't try.

“Kids come to Children's Express for leadership and journalism opportunities they may not get in a school setting,” Bailey said. “We treat them like the adults we want them to become. We explain consequences and libel and free speech and then guide them in the best way to handle all of that.”

Student reporters often come to the Children's Express newsroom after school a couple of times a week.

In the Washington, D.C., bureau of Children's Express, Ayesha Johnson, 16, said she doesn't write for her school newspaper because the experience would be too limiting.

“You can't really talk in-depth about stuff like abortion … because the paper doesn't want to offend anyone,” said Johnson, who attends Ballou High School in Washington, D.C. Johnson joined Children's Express a year ago, and said her experience thus far had made her a better journalist than she would have been as a reporter for her school newspaper.

“I get to do a lot of field work,” she said. “I get to go out and just do it.”

Johnson said she believes that if Hazelwood were overturned, it would be beneficial to student journalists.

“I absolutely see the principals' point of view, but they're like overprotective parents,” she said. “Student journalists should have more freedom to make mistakes … . As long as (student) journalists keep social responsibility, then I think Hazelwood should be lifted.”

The argument for free speech for student journalists is even more difficult at private schools where administrators have even greater latitude to control it. Since private schools are not restricted by the First Amendment, they can set any guidelines they wish on school publications. Students there, as well, are turning to the Web. They may publish online stories that normally could be excluded from their school's publication, said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C.

“There is a big distinction between school-sponsored publications and student expression outside of school,” Goodman said. “If students publish Web sites from their own computers and call the principal names on the Web site, the school cannot censor or punish them for what they publish on the sites.”

Matthew Shopsin, a 16-year-old private school student, started writing for the New York bureau of Children's Express at age 9. His older brother wrote for the site and introduced him to the news service. Shopsin's stories have been posted on The New York Post's Web site and been carried by the Amsterdam News, also in New York.

Shopsin, who attends the Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn, said he hadn't written for his high school paper yet, but would do so in the future. He says one of the major reasons he hasn't joined the school paper is that it doesn't often take interesting or unusual angles to stories.

Shopsin said his school this year passed a Press Rights Amendment Act, which liberates the school newspaper from direct censorship of the administration. The amendment states that the paper would be reviewed only once by the adviser before publication.

However, he says, this policy doesn't help if the adviser is afraid of publishing stories that might offend the administration.

Shopsin says he believes the reasoning behind Hazelwood is good in general, but “it makes administrators able to keep anything they want out (of the paper).”

In addition to news services, many young people are striking out on their own — virtually cost-free, but with help. Many Web sites, such as NBCi's Xoom.com and Yahoo!'s GeoCities.com, offer free Web page space.

Many high school newspapers already are online as seen on the National Scholastic Press Association's Web site.

About 10,000 high schools across the country use HighWired.com to put their newspapers on the Web, said Glen Mohr, product manager for journalism and guidance at HighWired.com. HighWired.com is the largest network of online school newspapers, and its service is free, fast and easy to get up and running, Mohr said.

Schools who want to use HighWired.com to publish on the Internet must have a faculty adviser to sign a user agreement. The adviser is then given a password to be used when stories are posted. The adviser can give the password to whomever he or she pleases, and HighWired.com will not interfere.

But because most high schools simply post their print edition directly online, the papers have already been filtered through the administration. Thus, it's not exactly censor-free. It is only when student journalists write for an organization independent from the school, such as the Children's Express, that they truly get to write without a censoring administration. (Of course, many schools also have Net-filtering software that keeps students from accessing controversial material from school computers.)

“Most high school newspapers use HighWired.com as a means to put their print edition online,” Mohr said. “This means that the same issues regarding student-press rights that arise with print versions also arise with online newspapers (on HighWired.com).”

Mohr also said some administrators have chosen to place greater restrictions on online publications than on print, although the courts have not yet passed a legal distinction between publishing online and publishing in print. Often, school administrators will opt to delete full student names and photos on the Internet, claiming to be protecting student interests.

Valerie Amster, a former journalism teacher who advised the newspaper, yearbook, literary magazine and news bureau at Hampshire High School in Illinois for four years, said she had experienced Web censorship. She currently lives in Richmond, Va., and will be teaching in Henrico County, Va., schools next year.

“Our district technology people (in Hampshire) informed me that if I were to put the paper online, I would have to eliminate pictures and last names,” Amster said. “I decided that wasn't actually journalism and since my hands were quite full with the four publications, I didn't pursue it. If I were to stay longer, I would be looking at something like HighWired.com to get my kids' paper online.”

Mohr said, “HighWired.com believes that such restrictions deprive students of the opportunity to be recognized for their work. In fact, one of the great advantages schools gain by joining the HighWired.com network is the opportunity for their students' work to be picked up by such major professional media as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Miami Herald and many others.”

Even online, however, questions continue to arise about how to achieve the delicate balance between journalistic freedom and responsibility.

Mohr believes that restricting student-press freedom online diminishes the educational experience of journalistic work, imposing decisions upon students rather than educating them to make such decisions for themselves.

But Marsha Kalkowski, a journalism teacher and newspaper adviser at Marion High School, a private, all-girls school in Omaha, Neb., believes that because students don't know as much about journalism as professionals, they need guidance from an adult who does know the ins and outs of the practice.

Free speech for students “is a battle worth fighting,” Kalkowski said. “But in no way should students be given absolute free reign. They still need an educated adviser and a strong sense of journalistic integrity.”

However, Amster said students should be given a chance to make mistakes, even under the guidance of an adviser.

“There is no way that we can expect students to learn the skills they need to be responsible journalists if we deny them the freedom of speech that 'real' journalists have,” Amster said. “We also need to provide them with structure and qualified advisers who will challenge them and make sure that they are learning from their mistakes as well as their successes.”

To this end, HighWired.com officials plan to develop suggested publication guidelines for administrators, addressing general policies for online high school newspapers.

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