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Barriers Faced by Student Newspapers Detailed

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Arlington, Va.

High school newspapers are threatened by interference from school administrators, lack of funds, inadequate training of advisers, and community indifference, according to the first comprehensive study of the field in a decade.

Many student papers face greater meddling from school principals emboldened by a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision, says the report released here last week by the Freedom Forum, a foundation devoted to free-press issues.

"It is impossible to understand how high school administrators, Supreme Court Justices, or editors of daily newspapers can square the censorship of student newspapers'' with the nation's history of devotion to free expression, writes John Siegenthaler, the chairman of the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center, in a foreword to the report.

The title of the 148-page report, "Death by Cheeseburger: High School Journalism in the 1990's and Beyond,'' refers to a story about cafeteria food that contributed to the closing of a North Carolina student newspaper in 1971.

Decision's Impact Decried

In the wake of the Supreme Court's decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which upheld a principal's deletion of stories from a Missouri high school paper about teenage pregnancy and divorce, more administrators have subjected papers to prior review or ordered the removal of articles they considered inappropriate, the report contends.

A Fort Wayne, Ind., principal, for example, barred a report that revealed how the tennis coach was improperly charging team members for private court time.

But also in the wake of Hazelwood, five states have passed student-press-rights laws, while numerous school districts have adopted similar policies.

And many principals and advisers have resisted community pressure to keep controversial issues out of student papers, the report points out.

One participant in a panel discussion held here to coincide with the report's release was Franklin McCallie, a Kirkwood, Mo., high school principal who backed his student paper's decision to run an ad from a Planned Parenthood chapter, despite a community outcry.

Mr. McCallie said he sees "principals backing off before they have to'' in their support for student control of newspapers.

Mark Goodman, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, said "the vast majority of [Mr. McCallie's] peers think very differently than he does.''

"[Principals] don't mind being called censors of their school papers, and that is educationally and morally bankrupt,'' Mr. Goodman charged.

But Thomas Koerner, the deputy executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, argued in a separate interview that when principals exercise control over newspapers, "We are trying to teach responsibility to the students.''

"No one [in journalism] really has carte blanche,'' he noted.

Costs and Computers

While censorship controversies often grab the most attention, many student papers have trouble paying for more than a handful of issues a year, the report documents.

The report also details efforts to train advisers, recruit minority students, and introduce computers and other technology.

The report's 12 recommendations for improving high school journalism include:

  • Every high school should have a paper published at least monthly.
  • All schools need policy guidelines or state laws guaranteeing press rights for students.
  • Journalism teachers and advisers should receive more training through formal programs.

Beginning April 1, copies of the report will be available for $14.95 each from the Freedom Forum, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209; (800) 830-3733.

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