Law & Courts

Web Site Is Home to Banned School Journalism

By Andrew Trotter — February 11, 1998 4 min read
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“Got a story that your high school newspaper won’t print because it’s too controversial?” asks the Bolt Reporter, a publication on the World Wide Web for teenagers.

“We’ll consider it for ‘Banned on Bolt,’ our 100 percent uncensored section. See freedom of the press in action,” the come-on reads.

A principal now has something new to think about before spiking an article from a school newspaper: The story might appear on the Web.

The Bolt Reporter, which calls itself “America’s Online High School Newspaper,” is looking for solid journalism that has been censored from school papers, said the Web site’s producer, Parker J. Stanzione. She hopes the publication will be a beacon to alert students to the perils of censorship and the power of careful journalism.

“We’re following in the footsteps of students who have taken their own initiative and gone underground and published pamphlets,” Ms. Stanzione said. “We’re putting it on-line.”

Going Public

The Bolt Reporter, published by Concrete Media Inc., a company based in New York City, went on-line last fall. The Web address is www.boltreporter.com.

Some of its articles, while not necessarily banned from school papers, push the edge of what some administrators might feel comfortable about publishing. Current articles explore campus bias against gay students, teen suicide, and medicinal-cannabis clubs.

The site, with a jazzy, multihued format, also offers popular fare such as movie and music reviews and a student survey on the allegations of sexual impropriety against President Clinton.

But it is the “Banned on Bolt” section that has earned salutes by professional journalists in publications such as Wired and The New Yorker.

One essay in the section is by Adrian S. Holovaty, the chief editor of the North Star student newspaper in Naperville, Ill.

Mr. Holovaty tried to publish an article last fall about a teacher at Naperville North High School who was fired after being charged with having sexual contact with a female student. Principal Douglas F. Cameron told the newspaper staff it could not write about the incident because of his concern for the welfare of the student, who still attends the school, Mr. Cameron said.

But the students turned to the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va., for advice, and the local and national media took up their cause. Eventually, after the teacher pleaded guilty to felony charges, the principal allowed the students to print an article on the situation.

In his “Banned on Bolt” essay, Mr. Holovaty urges other student journalists to stand up to school censors. “Don’t let administrators intimidate you--you have a right to your own opinion, too,” Mr. Holovaty advises. “If the administration refuses to change its mind, let the public know about your unfair situation.”

The Web site also includes the North Star‘s original article, a succinct, factual account that five reporters labored over.

Censored articles must pass careful legal and factual scrutiny before they are published in “Banned on Bolt,” Ms. Stanzione said. For example, quotations are verified by reading them back to the people being quoted.

Intimidation Factor

Ms. Stanzione, 29, admitted that so far she has only found a handful of censored articles for the section, and that other Bolt articles on controversial topics, including the piece on discrimination against gay students, previously ran in high school newspapers.

That doesn’t mean censorship isn’t happening, said Mark Goodman, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center. He said censorship by school principals has been on the rise since the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed school officials’ right to prior review of official student newspapers in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier in 1988.

“I think [principals] are getting more heavy-handed all the time. We hear from more and more students and publication advisers each year about censorship issues,” Mr. Goodman said.

But Mr. Goodman said the Internet’s vast and widely accessible World Wide Web has practically repealed administrators’ power to suppress student expression.

“We have long warned school officials that their propensity to censor school publications was pushing students into other means of expression that the school had even less influence and control over,” he said. With the Web, “schools cannot slow the flow of all this information. All they can do is push it into channels that prevent the opportunity for educational training by a classroom teacher or newspaper adviser.”

But Linda J. Puntney, the executive director of the Journalism Education Association and an assistant journalism professor at Kansas State University, said the ability to publish on-line won’t remove the intimidation factor of a disapproving principal.

“One of the greatest threats is self-censorship by students; I think that happens far more frequently than we want to believe,” Ms. Puntney said.

Candace Perkins Bowen, the coordinator of scholastic-media programs at Kent State University in Ohio and the past president of the JEA, had a different concern.

“One thing that worries me, if kids are too willing to publish controversial articles elsewhere,” she said, “then they’re not going to fight the good fight in their own back yard.”

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