Community Paper Prints Censored Student Articles

By: Nat Hentoff

The Doings newspapers, weeklies founded in 1895 and published in Hinsdale, Ill., reach about 50,000 readers in 13 suburban Chicago communities. On May 17, The Doings‘ Hinsdale edition (“Your Local Source for Community News”) ran “A note to our readers” from Publisher James E. Slonoff and Editor Pamela Lannom. James Ferguson, principal of Hinsdale Central High School, had prohibited the distribution of the school newspaper, The Devil’s Advocate, because he felt a section — both text and graphics — on the second anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colo., was “inflammatory and yellow journalism.”

School officials gathered up all copies of the issue and threw them into a Dumpster. The section was to be reprinted in The Doings.

As Lannom wrote in a May 10 editorial, the 32-page issue of The Devil’s Advocate — in addition to comparing Hinsdale Central and Columbine high schools — included “information about gun and licensing laws in Illinois, and an editorial urging students to put an end to bullying, which is reportedly the reason why some teens across the nation have shot their classmates or teachers. And a column also discussed the effects of music with violent lyrics.”

I’ve read the censored section, as totally reprinted in The Doings. Making this clearly responsible journalism available to the community at large was indeed an admirable decision by Slonoff — educating the parents of the students as well as giving the principal remedial instruction on free-press principles.

Moreover, as The Doings‘ education editor, Rita DuChateau, pointed out, “The Devil’s Advocate has won national awards,” including a Columbia Scholastic Press Association Gold Crown Award for work published during the 1999-2000 school year. Linda Kennedy has been the paper’s faculty adviser for most of her 33 years at the school, and she said the paper has always been an open forum, with students making the decisions. She said, “I urge, require, and respect quality work, in-depth coverage, and responsible writing.” And she believes the Columbine section met those criteria.

Slonoff told me, “I couldn’t let such valuable information go unnoticed,” so he told his readers: “The importance of a free press is something we discuss, but often do not have the opportunity to take action to support.”

Referring to my quotation of U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr. in E&P July 2, Slonoff wrote me that “if there was ever a group of students who has ‘taken the words of the First Amendment off the page and into their lives,’ it was them. My hope is that several of these kids eventually end up in our field — we could use their spirit, talent, professionalism, and common sense.”

As for his readers’ reaction to the resurrection of the destroyed Devil’s Advocate, Slonoff reported: “We lost a few subscribers, were taken to task on our editorial page by a few letter writers, but it was a decision I never regretted. The support was much stronger than the anger. Many people in the community were surprised at how well the kids had done.”

An important legal lesson was learned by The Doings during its rescue of the First Amendment. In “A note to our readers,” Slonoff and Lannom wrote: “We have been advised by attorneys that the articles are the intellectual property of the students, not the school. We did not seek permission from Hinsdale Central or Hinsdale High School District 68 to publish these articles.”

Slonoff cleared the issue of rights with Don Craven — a leading press attorney in Illinois, counsel to the Illinois Press Association, and operator of the Libel Hotline in the state — and with Mark Goodman of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va.

Goodman’s position should be circulated among public-high-school journalists, advisers, and principals, as well as school boards, throughout the nation. He pointed out that public-high-school officials, as determined by the Tinker and Hazelwood decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, are not like publishers of private newspapers. Public-school officials are agents of the state and therefore “are limited by the First Amendment when it comes to controlling content in a way that private publishers can never be.” In addition, Goodman said, “Unless the school can prove some physical destruction would have resulted from these stories [which is unlikely], its censorship is legally indefensible.”

This was the first time the paper was censored in its more than 30 years of existence.

“Moreover,” Goodman continued, “a public high school doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of claiming that it owns the rights to material that students create in school when the students are not getting payment for their work.” This applies to “class assignments, including essays, art projects, and fiction,” he said, and, in this case, “The students came up with these ideas, and researched and wrote the stories entirely on their own.”

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