Protecting Their Passion: Student Journalists Face Censorship

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The Dating Survivial Guide produced by student journalists of Plainfield High School was a source of controversy that ultimately led to a strict review policy. Photo by Ashley Shuler, TheStatehouseFile.com

By Ashley Shuler
TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS–Three days before The Quaker Shaker went to the printer, Kyra Howard cried in the hallway.

Howard, 17, is an editor for Plainfield High School’s student publications and designed the first quarterly newsmagazine cover of the school year. Her principal had just told her to change it.

“I was crying because it was my first cover as an editor,” Howard said. “This is my cover. My team did this. We sat down the second week of school to do it. We were so excited.”

Her design headlined the first magazine reviewed not only by the student staff and their adviser Michelle Burress before publication—but also Plainfield administrators.

Editor Kyra Howard looks at the differences between her two cover designs. “You don’t have to make everyone happy. You’re never going to. You can write the best story in the world. You can win every award, and you’re not going to please everyone,” she said. “Do it for you. Do it for the people who are going to be helped by it.” Photo by Ashley Shuler, TheStatehouseFile.com

This prior review started after students published a special issue called “Plainfield High School’s Dating Survival Guide Declassified” in October 2017. The magazine received widespread backlash at school and in the community for its content, which covered many facets of dating. It included a Q&A with a police officer on dating violence, definitions of terms like “friends with benefits” and tips about meeting your significant other’s parents for the first time.

The special edition placed 7th in the Top 10 Best of Show at the National Scholastic Press Association convention.

The photo on Howard’s now-altered cover shows a student’s grossed-out expression while sticking his hands and feet in goo like relish and mustard at a pep session for the homecoming football game.

But Howard said Plainfield High School Principal Melvin Siefert said readers might assume the student’s expression is about the butt in the background, not the goo. He was worried about the community’s reaction of having a button the cover following the dating guide controversy, she said.

“This was taken at a pep session. The whole school was in there. Everyone saw this,” Howard said. “It was about his emotion. It’s a great picture.”

Howard said Siefert originally asked her to change the cover photo completely, but they settled on adding a blue bar to the side to cover the butt, making it less noticeable.

LEFT Senior Kyra Howard’s original cover design, which features a photo of a student’s reaction after sticking his hands and feet in goo like relish and mustard at the school’s homecoming football pep session. RIGHT After Plainfield High School Principal Mel Siefert said readers could assume the student’s expression is about the butt in the background, not the goo, Howard had to alter her design by adding a blue bar to cover it.

“It was either the bar or nothing,” Howard said. “It was kind of heartbreaking.”

Howard’s cover is one example of at least five changes made to content produced by Plainfield journalism students since the prior review began. Other changes include removing part of a quote given by a counselor about insurance and editing a gun off of a student’s shirt.

“I understand they think that this stuff is sensitive and all, but there comes a point when it’s sensitive and when it’s just petty censoring because they’re worried about what the school looks like and not really what’s in the best interest for their students,” Howard said.

A student journalism freedom bill would’ve ended that “petty censoring.”

Silencing New Voices

House Bill 1016 was designed to provide freedom of speech and press protections for student journalists grades 7 through 12 at Indiana public schools.

The legislation would have required school media advisers to work with students to adopt a policy concerning student journalist protections each school year.

It also said schools can’t suppress school-sponsored media unless the school could prove content is libelous or slanderous, creates a clear and present danger of illegal acts, or substantially disrupts the operation of the school, among a list of other conditions. Under the bill, schools would have been off the hook from civil liability for injuries resulting from school-sponsored media produced by a student journalist.

In February, this bill failed in a close 47-45 House vote.

Although the bill got more yes votes than no votes, it failed because it didn’t get the required 51 votes needed for passage to move onto the Senate. Similar legislation failed in the 2017 legislative session when, after passing the House by a wide margin, it never got a vote on the Senate floor.

Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, authored both bills. Claire, once a journalist himself, said the bill’s purpose was to clarify the limits of student journalism by establishing a uniform framework.

The Dating Survival Guide produced by student journalists of Plainfield High School was a source of controversy that ultimately led to a strict review policy. Photo by Ashley Shuler, TheStatehouseFile.com

If re-elected, Claire plans to author similar legislation for a third time next session.

“Students in all schools deserve an opportunity to learn about journalism and to pursue and practice journalism,” Clere said. “Many students never have those opportunities. Some schools recognize the value of student journalism, but many others don’t. Students miss out as a result. It’s not just the would-be student journalists who miss out. It’s the entire school community and society at large.”

Howard was one of many student journalists from around the state who were rooting for the bill’s passage. One of her fellow editors at Plainfield, 16-year-old Anu Nattam, gave a powerful testimony in the House committee.

“I had a veteran Statehouse reporter who grabbed me as we were leaving the committee room that day and told me how inspiring the students were and how it really gave him hope for the future,” Clere said. “It gives me hope for the future.”

HB 1016 is based on successful New Voices USA legislation in other states. New Voices is a network of state-by-state campaigns to pass anti-censorship legislation to protect student journalists from administrative control.

New Voices, when passed, gives students protection beyond the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court Hazelwood decision which ruled schools could control the content of student speech if it caused “legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

In his dissent in Hazelwood, Justice William Brennan outlined his fear the decision would let school officials commit “unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination” by hiding behind these so-called “legitimate pedagogical concerns” to save themselves the hassle and embarrassment.

“It’s been with us for 30 years now, and it’s done incalculable damage to student journalism, and as a result, to professional journalism,” Clere said. “It harms and limits journalism education, and that causes there to be fewer students learning about journalism and thinking about possibly choosing journalism as a career. We need journalists more than ever.”

The Society of Professional Journalists and other journalism education organizations have discredited Hazelwood as having unnecessary control at the post-secondary level and noted the lopsided power dynamic between students and administrators.

While HB 1016 didn’t make it through Indiana’s Statehouse, Washington state passed New Voices legislation in March to protect its students.

“I won’t benefit from it at all,” Howard said. “It’s kind of disappointing that nearly my whole high school journalism career, I will be censored. Even if I fight for it, it’s just not going to happen with the Plainfield administration.”

FOOTNOTE: Ashley Shuler is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.  Despite the national notion of “fake news,” censorship within their own schools and the recent failure of a bill that would’ve protected their First Amendment rights, Indiana high school journalists are determined to make a change and get the story. This is the first of three parts.

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