Protecting Their Passion: Keeping Principal Power
INDIANAPOLIS–The defeat of the student journalism bill in the 2018 session of the Indiana General Assembly has as much to do with freedom as it does power and control.
Major opposition to the legislation came from outside the Statehouse. The Indiana Association of School Principals, the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, the Indiana School Boards Association and the Indiana Department of Education all opposed it.
Todd Bess, executive director of Indiana Association of School Principals, said existing law works well because principals have ultimate responsibility for their schools, their students and the content published or broadcast by student media.
“When an item comes up for publication, the principal hopefully should, and most often does, have a good pulse on everything in the school and the impact a particular article or topic could have,” Bess said. “With their ability to say, ‘This isn’t the right time,’ or, ‘This isn’t the right approach,’ or, ‘Can we look at a different scenario?’, they’re—in our estimation—not trying to take away from the journalism program that’s in their school, but consider everything else that could be impacted by that content.”
Rather than legislate the issue, Bess said, schools should promote good relationships between advisers and their administrators. By allowing schools to determine their level of review on a case-by-case basis, students can learn the right approach to publishing content about topics that could negatively impact other students in the building, he said.
If students wanted to report on a tough issue, nothing is stopping them from researching and writing the piece anyway and sharing it with their class of 30 or so students rather than publishing it to the entire school, he said.
Lisa Tanselle, Indiana School Boards Association general counsel, said her organization also wants the standard to remain broad.
“[Local school officials] know the expectations of the community, and expectations of communities vary from school corporation to school corporation,” Tanselle said. “What might be offensive in one school corporation might not be offensive in another. Because this is part of the curriculum, we think the administrator should be able to make that judgment call.”
By giving school administrators local control, they can—along with the media adviser—determine what’s appropriate to include in student media, which is often school-sponsored with the school logo on it, she said.
“We can’t identify every situation that might result in censorship or review that might then ultimately result in the community being upset as to this article coming out,” Tanselle said. “The community’s perception then is, ‘My goodness, what are you teaching kids if you let this article out?’”
Testimonies for and against the bill showed schools have different adviser-administrator relationships, and different prior review agreements, under the Hazelwood standard, Tanselle said. And it should stay that way.
“While there may be some inconsistency in this state, we certainly have evidence there are quality publications out there under this standard,” she said.
State Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, said it’s unfortunate none of the administrator groups have been willing to work with him on the legislation.
“They’ve made it clear that they will oppose any legislation that rolls back or limits their authority under Hazelwood,” he said. “They are clinging to that absolute control.”
Plainfield administrators are exercising their control.
Sabrina Kapp, communications director for Plainfield Community School Corporation, directed TheStatehouseFile.com to a blog post written in October 2017 as the district’s comment in place of interviews or specific statements from Superintendent Scott Olinger and the school board.
“We felt then, and still do, that the post says everything that we can, and will, say about the matter,” Kapp said in an email.
The post doesn’t include information about the administrative move to review each page of the magazine before publication or why. Kapp declined to arrange interviews or provide specific statements about Plainfield’s ongoing prior review process.
Plainfield High School Principal Melvin Siefert did not respond to requests for comment.
“The biggest change under this legislation is administrators would have to justify their censorship,” Clere said. “If content did not fall into one of the prohibited categories, then it could be published or broadcast. And that’s what administrators don’t want. They don’t want to have to justify censorship. They want the ability to censor anything they don’t like.”
FOOTNOTES: 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 second of three parts.