Administrators in the Fond du Lac, Wis. school district this week implemented a policy that guarantees them the right to review all content of school media prior to publication. Any article that the administrators deem “poorly written, inadequately researched, false, defamatory or libelous, vulgar or profane, unsuitable for immature audiences, or biased or prejudiced” will be yanked from the publication or otherwise censored.
The root of this heavy-handed approach to student media? An article written by the Cardinal Columns editor in chief, in which she points out that a lot of people in her school have made and heard rape jokes and that the rape victims in her school don’t find them funny. Senior Tanvi Kumar uses a well-executed survey of her peers to show how people have no problem talking about rape like it’s the funniest thing out there. In addition, she interviews several rape victims about their experiences and victimization.
The piece is better than most coverage I’ve seen in college papers and even some pro publications. It's also interesting that no one is accusing the publication of being libelous or anything else listed above. Instead, couched deeper in this policy is a "we can do what we want if we want to" clause.
The school’s response is one that should make almost everyone cringe. Let’s skip past the whole “First Amendment is still a thing” issue and cut to the specificity of this incident.
The student PUBLICATION is being punished for pointing out that RAPE IS REAL and it SUCKS WHEN IT HAPPENS TO HIGH SCHOOL KIDS.
After I read the article, I had a conversation with another parent in my kid's class about it and the reaction from the parent was, “Well, when your kid gets to high school, would you want her reading about this?”
My answer was pretty simple: That’s not even close to the point. The kid pointed out something real and scary and my hope as a parent is that the school would DO SOMETHING at the school about the issue of rape. Administrators could open more dialogue, look for ways to reinforce the issue that this isn’t OK and joking about it is not cool. That’s what I’d want to happen. Even more, I would hope that my kid would read about it and we could talk about what to do in situations where she felt pressure and what was not acceptable behavior. Information breeds dialogue, which in turn creates opportunities to prevent scary things like this.
Administrators don’t like dialogue for the most part and use a horrible SCOTUS decision in an ass-backward fashion to suppress student speech.
In 1988 the Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier case determined that administrators may inhibit the publication of some content if they believe it has the ability to inhibit education within the school. In other words, if you create an article that can grind the school to a halt, administrators have the right to censor it.
Subsequent decisions at lower courts have tried to refine this, and explain that the bar for this is really pretty high. Still, administrators treat this decision like it came from God and endows them with the power of the Avengers: I CAN HAZ MY CENZORS!
The administration’s reaction in this case is probably the worst one possible:
[Superintendent James Sebert] points to aspects of “The Rape Joke” article — which includes some graphic description of the types of rape a student endured, a letter from the editors called “The Punchline,” and a Pledge of Allegiance editorial that instructs students on their rights to not stand during the Pledge as questionable material for a school publication. Sebert said he and Wiltzius met with Matthew Smith, the print journalism teacher at the high school and adviser to the magazine’s staff, to discuss the issues.
“Cardinal Columns is created as part of the print journalism class at Fond du Lac High School,” Sebert wrote. “District resources are utilized and the publication represents the school and the district. The guidelines created will ensure this publication as well as any school-sponsored publications are reviewed by the principal prior to print and publication. This is a reasonable expectation for a school-sponsored publication.”
So, the superintendent didn’t like the really icky description of rape that the students used because, y’know, it might be uncomfortable for people to hear. The lesson here? Remember, kids, when discussing rape, make sure to use language that accentuates the positivity of the issue and that you don’t make people feel uncomfortable about it. It was also horrible that they pointed out that students still have Constitutional rights and that the students came out against rape culture.
No wonder we need to censor them.
The principal, however, said students don’t really need to worry about this because he’s a cool guy:
High School principal Jon Wiltzius says,"If an article would come to me with a topic that does not meet the expectations or guidelines then yes I will have to deny that."
But Principal Wiltzius says that doesn't mean the story is dead. Instead he says he will work with the journalism students and their teacher to come up with what he deems is an acceptable way to present a topic.
Says Wiltzius, "As we work through that process now of identifying what's appropriate, what's not based on those guidelines I think that's where the communication has to occur as well."
I’m sure there are a number of hyperbolic comparatives we could make here about a leader taking away the rights of others, only to tell them not to worry because he will assure them that he’s acting in their best interest. However, to make any of them would distract from the importance of the message here: I’m censoring you and I have the final say about this, but don’t worry about it because I promise you I’ll be nice about it.
This kind of thing can’t be allowed to stand. The students have created a petition, requesting that the superintendent reverse the policy and restore the rights of the school publications.
I ask that you sign it, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to. Unlike the Fond du Lac administrators, I’m not presuming that I know better than you or that I can force you to bend to my will because I want you to.