Iowa Alumni Magazine | October 2008 | Features

A Press under Pressure

By Shelbi Thomas
Should high school journalists enjoy the same freedom of the press as the pros? A UI course for teachers offers guidance.

Teen pregnancy, drug use, racism. Such complicated and controversial topics are standard fare for many newspapers and magazines. But should they appear in a high school publication? Longtime UI journalism instructor Richard Johns thinks so.

"It's important for that student voice to be heard rather than just the adult or authority voice," he says. "[The stories] shouldn't be just about pushing the envelope, but about addressing topics relevant to teenagers and providing information that can help."

Johns feels so strongly on this issue that he sat in the courtroom in October 1987 when the Supreme Court deliberated high school newspapers and yearbooks. A board member of the national Student Press Law Center at the time, he became a firsthand witness to history as the Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier court case set limits to student freedom of expression.

For the past 36 years at the UI, Johns has continued to defend high school journalism by educating hundreds of advisers about their students' press rights in the "Methods: Secondary School Journalism" course. Active teachers and UI education majors alike take the class to learn how to handle situations that potentially affect every community, school, and child in America. The course prepares advisers for what they will face as they develop critical relationships with students and administrators, build a staff and newspaper that reflect the diversity of the school, and train the next generation of journalists.

Many of the students these teachers will encounter join the high school newspaper or yearbook staff to do more than snap pictures of the Homecoming Queen or write reviews of the mystery meat served in the school cafeteria—they want a voice to address issues that matter in their lives. As Kyle Phillips, a UI English education senior from Iowa City and a student in Johns' class, says, "When the average high school student sees something wrong in his school, he complains. The journalism student is more likely to express his viewpoint and enact some change."

That's what happened at Des Moines' Hoover High School, where school newspaper staff (advised by Timm Pilcher, 94BS) noticed a disproportionately high number of African American student suspensions in their school district—and throughout Iowa. To address the issue, student reporters talked to administrators and teachers about ways to alleviate the problem and wrote about it in the Hoover Challenger. Des Moines Register editors were so impressed with the coverage that they reprinted the series, providing a statewide forum to tackle the concerns.

The West Side Story, the student newspaper at West High School in Iowa City, has written features about everything from underage drinking to stem cell research. While paper adviser Sara Schlesinger enjoys a good working relationship with her principal, she admits that the school community doesn't always respond positively to controversial stories. "The challenges are mainly dealing with the consequences of having my students' work made public," says Schlesinger, 03BA. "It's part of the job, but it can be frustrating at times to be scrutinized in a way that most teachers never are."

Schlesinger's students often spend hours interviewing multiple sources, writing and rewriting their articles, and holding team meetings to plan coverage. For such balanced and in-depth reporting, the West Side Story became a finalist for the 2007 Pacemaker Award, the National Scholastic Press Association's highest honor for a high school publication.

Shaped by their experiences, many of the paper's editors continue their success in college as reporters for the Daily Iowan and other award-winning publications. In fact, a recent study by the Newspaper Association of America shows that journalism students consistently perform better academically in high school and college, receive higher scores on college entrance exams, have better writing and grammar skills, excel at critical thinking, and are more informed and involved in school activities than their classmates. Because of these factors, Johns says a quality student newspaper is one of the best measures of a school's academic health.

Not everyone agrees. Though students may see their school newspaper as a place to address issues ranging from high dropout rates to underage drinking, many administrators, teachers, and parents don't want to see such problems turned into headlines for all to read. Anticipating backlash, some student reporters resort to self-censorship, passing over these topics for lighter fare. For those who dare take on controversy, articles may end up axed on the principal's desk.

Phillips says such censorship sends mixed messages to students who may be exercising their First Amendment rights for the first time—especially after years of social studies classes that have emphasized this crucial aspect of American democracy. The Supreme Court came to a similar conclusion with its ruling in the 1969 Tinker vs. Des Moines student freedom of expression case, in which Justice Abe Fortas said, "It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

Yet parents, principals, and even professional journalists have argued that inexperienced reporters working with sensitive subject matter can be a dangerous combination. Are 14- to 18-year-olds mature enough to write responsible stories that deal with shoplifting or cheating on exams? Will the reporting be thorough enough to show the consequences of these behaviors? Will students who agree to be interviewed regret their decision?

Because the UI is home to the offices of the Iowa High School Press Association, the International Quill and Scroll Honor Society, and summer journalism workshops, high school advisers across the globe often turn to the university—and specifically to JohnsÑfor advice on such issues.

Last semester, for the first time in the course's history, nearly half of Johns' students joined "Methods" via the World Wide Web. The UI School of Journalism offered the course online in response to a growing demand from Iowa's teachers, who are facing increased pressure from the No Child Left Behind Act to seek their journalism endorsements. Through a virtual classroom, teachers across the state used their home computers to see and respond to Johns as he taught the class from North Hall.

Though the class covers everything from editorial policies and budgeting to layout and design, it pays particular attention to laws that govern high school students' freedom to write about controversial issues. Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier allows public school administrators to censor publications if they can show a "valid educational purpose for their censorship"—such as if stories are poorly written and researched, biased, unsuitable for immature audiences, or advocate illegal activities.

Hazelwood's legal predecessor, Tinker vs. Des Moines, only limits student free expression when it can be demonstrated that it would "cause material and substantial disruption of school activities or an invasion of the rights of others." Seven states—including Iowa—that have passed Student Freedom of Expression laws rely on this interpretation.

Despite Iowa's more lenient standards, controversy sometimes can arise. At Iowa City's City High last year, the principal pulled an issue of the school newspaper, claiming that a cover story and related survey about racial attitudes had caused a disruption in the school, leading to altercations between pupils.

The UI School of Journalism discussed the incident in teacher workshops and sent representatives to the school to promote dialogue between various student groups. "A lot of administrators see the school newspaper as a public relations tool, so they don't want to air their dirty laundry," says Johns. "However, I'd much rather get the facts from the newspaper than through rumors, hearsay, and gossip."

"Methods" students receive a copy of Iowa's Student Freedom of Expression Act from Johns, who hopes that they will share it with their students and administrators before a problem occurs. "If it's filed away in a drawer and no one's aware of it," he says, "it's going to get lost in the shuffle."