Journalism shapes high school experience

In my four years at FHS, I found mentors that inspired and motivated me all across the range of subjects I took. However ultimately, I would find my niche in the journalism room. As a sophomore and the new kid on staff, I witnessed the most unique group of students I had ever seen together in one room. This group was diverse, spanning in social groups and ideals. What struck me was that they were together in their differences, talking about weird and interesting things—each comfortable having something to say. They were eccentric and passionate and intimidating in a way I had not experienced. I wanted to be a part of it—I saw in their diversity a kind of team I could fit into.

This group of people changed from semester to semester and from year to year. However, the diversity, the eccentricity, and what they represented never went away. The journalism program at FHS gave me a voice and introduced me to passion. I made friendships with people I would not have otherwise had, and I had a consistent escape every third block for seven semesters. In this class I fell in love with reporting and writing stories and opinion pieces, with designing pages and with journalism as an industry. As a senior I was given the opportunity to practice being a leader. I was instilled with journalistic values and knew the power of words. I found that I love writing about my peers and topics concerning them. I learned that as students, we have a voice unlike anyone else’s. I found my true passion for journalism lies in the stories that interest and challenge me, and that can make a difference.

The administration’s censorship of my article about dabbing was ironically, in some ways, a blessing. Not only did I learn my rights (yes, I have rights) I learned just how political the world is. I learned how much I believe in free speech and the significance of fighting for it. In my years on the journalism staff I have written about why the morning after pill should be available to young women and about rape culture. I have written about teen stress, teen graffiti, teen’s views on tattoos and piercings, and the effects of tanning salons on young people. Other students may find themselves on a field, or in a physics class, but I found myself in journalism, writing these stories.

What is most shocking to me is that it was educators in positions of authority who suppressed my speech and tried to take the essence of what I found in myself and in the industry, away from me and every other student journalist. In my years in the Fauquier County school system, many of my teachers preached thinking outside the box and the importance of human rights. They also taught me to stand up for what I believe in. The administration at FHS praises the journalism program that allows students to learn and practice real journalism, express viewpoints, and write about matters that concern and are of importance to students. But journalistic fairness and balance only is allowed as long as it is in agreement with the administration’s message.

I covered student misuse of social media and technology during school hours that sparked “FHS fight week” and was praised for practicing good journalism. It was entirely different when I wrote about a drug trend amongst high school students, a topic the administration does not want the student body to know about. Once a source says something that contradicts the administration’s message, that source, or the journalist writing the story, will be silenced. This lack of journalistic integrity contradicts everything that I was taught to believe in. More than anything, this disappointed me and shattered the image I had of the school system I grew up in.

I’m saddened that the administration thinks we are naive children who need to be shielded from the truth. I’m saddened the administration doesn’t believe in the importance of the student voice. However, the more the administration treated me like my convictions and thoughts were infantile, the stronger I became as a person. People in authority can sometimes be very wrong, and that’s life. Young people have amazing brains and amazing thoughts, and they have the capability of learning from and rising above the bad examples. This small town has taught me much about the larger world around me.

From this experience, I take away a thicker skin and even greater motivation to become the reporter that makes a difference with my stories, or whatever I may end up doing. I have a greater appreciation for knowledge and what it offers people. I feel so lucky to have received a spectrum of experiences in my high school journalism room that I can take with me throughout my life.

~SaraRose Martin, co editor-in-chief

Publications policy requires review

In July, 2009, Fauquier County adopted a student publications policy that severely compromised the First Amendment rights of student journalists by stating that the principal was the “editor” of all student publications and responsible for “approving” all publications with his “judgement and discretion.” Deeply troubled by this policy, the county publication advisers and principals worked with then superintendent Dr. Jonathan Lewis to develop a publications policy that balanced the needs of students to express their viewpoints and write about their school community with administrative concerns about acceptable speech in the public school setting. The School Board adopted this revised policy in December, 2009, and praised the process by which the compromise was reached.

In 2012, Assistant Superintendent Frank Finn and School Board Attorney Brad King “updated” the publications policy by reinstating language that again makes the principal the “editor” of all student publications and responsible for “approving all publications in accordance with School Board policy and his judgment and discretion.” The 2012 revisions were made without input from any county publications adviser. Moreover, the revised policy was not made known to any adviser until the recent controversy about the censorship of The Falconer’s article on dabbing. Setting aside concerns about the way these changes were made, the 2012 publications policy severely undercuts the journalism programs in Fauquier County.

Editors are in charge of running a publication. They help develop and approve a story list and have the authority to decide what viewpoints or stories run or do not run. The language in the 2012 policy takes away the editor role from student journalists and gives it to the principal. Under the Supreme Court’s Hazelwood decision, principals can censor student speech without violating the First Amendment as long as he or she has a legitimate educational purpose. These legitimate purposes were identified in the December, 2009, policy. However, under the 2012 policy, the principal is allowed to use his “judgment and discretion” when deciding what goes in student publications. This implies that a principal could censor any viewpoint or article topic he or she does not agree with, including pieces that criticized his actions and decisions.

This is a conflict of interest. Student journalists have a right to and are largely responsible for covering and expressing viewpoints about decisions made by the administration. Public school principals are government officials. As government officials under the First Amendment, they are bound to not infringe upon the First Amendment rights of journalists reporting on their policies. Just because students are in a public school does not mean that their First Amendment rights do not exist, and making a principal the editor-in-chief of student publications ultimately contradicts his role as a government official.
Although Hazelwood allows prior review in certain circumstances, it does not require it. However, as Assistant Superintendent Finn made clear, the 2012 policy does – how can a principal “approve” a publication without reading it? Prior review leads to censorship. After being reviewed, the dabbing article was censored on the grounds that it was unsuitable for freshmen. Prior review creates biased articles that do not report news accurately. During discussions of the censorship of the dabbing article, it was suggested that the administration could “edit” the article to better reflect the administration’s viewpoint by removing the frank quotes that described the experiences of student users. This is not acceptable journalism in the school world any more than it is in the “real world.”

Prior review also leads to self-censorship. Now, student journalists at FHS are afraid to cover controversial topics concerning the student body, and are even avoiding using certain words, out of fear that their work will be censored by the administration. Can The Falconer write about underage drinking? Can The Falconer write about sexual activity among teens?

The student voice is crucial. It offers a perspective on student life unlike any other, and it gives a voice to the voiceless. School publications should be a forum for students to write about matters concerning their peers and matters that are important to their peers, in a respectful manner in the school community. Publications are forums to discuss student life, and students have an essential voice that deserves to be heard. Most importantly, school publications are a way to learn about and practice real journalism. This is valuable beyond words. Student publications are not, and should not be forced to be, a mouthpiece for the administration. Making material in publications up to the principal’s “judgment and discretion” violates students’ First Amendment rights. The new publication policy is unconstitutional and severely damages the human rights of student journalists.

The School Board should reinstate the carefully crafted language of the December, 2009, policy. Under this policy the administration already had sufficient authority to censor what they feel is inappropriate, as shown by the censorship of the article about dabbing. The School Board should not have policies that encourage school administrators to dictate what student journalists can or should write about.

School Board compromises publications policy

In April, 2012, the Fauquier County policy manual was restructured and updated to make it easier to navigate online. As part of this restructuring, the policy governing student publications was also revised by Frank Finn, Assistant Superintendent for Special Education and Student Services, and School Board attorney Brad King. The revisions reinstated language that had previously been rejected in the December, 2009, student publication policy.

Under the language of the 2012 policy, school principals are the “editors” of all student publications and are responsible for “approving all publications in accordance with School Board policy and his judgement and discretion.” These revisions were made without the input or knowledge of the county’s publication advisors.

“The problem with the language in the 2012 policy is that editors make all the decisions about the paper’s contents, and those editors should be the students. A principal can censor a particular article in certain circumstances, but he or she shouldn’t say what topics can or can’t be written about,” Falconer advisor Marie Miller said. “Student journalists often report on and question decisions by school administrators. A principal should not be given authority to use a vague standard like ‘discretion’ to censor student articles about his or her policies.”

In the fall of 2009, the publications policy was revised to meet the needs of students to express their viewpoints and write about their school community under the protection of the First Amendment. This policy revision ensured that students avoided unprotected speech and operated within Supreme Court cases like Hazelwood and Tinker. During this process, input was obtained from all county publications advisors and principals. The 2012 publications policy was brought to attention during the controversy of censoring the FHS student newspaper, The Falconer. Because it was updated three years ago, Principal Clarence Burton was not involved in the revision process. However, he asserts that the 2012 revisions do not change his role of overseeing the school’s publications.

“It’s kind of like a filter system, if the faculty adviser feels there’s something that needs to be looked at,” Burton said. “I don’t see it as any change in the way we’ve gone about business in the almost three years that I’ve been here.”
However, according to Finn, prior review is necessary under the 2012 policy. Finn said the language in the December, 2009, publications policy was too weak, because it simply stated, “The school principal is responsible for all school publications.” The principal should be given absolute authority in student publications, according to Finn.

“One of the things I’m concerned about with that language [in the December, 2009, policy] is it’s a little vague. What does that really mean?” Finn said. “What authority does that grant him? Maybe the ‘editor’ is problematic, but maybe the policy that preceded it is problematic in the other extreme.”

Finn acknowledges that principals would have to engage in prior review in order to “approve” publications under the current policy.

“I think that’s part of the problem: how practical is it that a principal can read every article independently and go through it in detail and make editorial decisions?” Finn said. “I don’t think any principal has the where-with-all or the time to do that. The principal does not want or really need to have the responsibility of editorial control of the publication because that takes away all the uniqueness of a student publication. What they do need, though, is the explicit right to make decisions.”

According to Finn, the Supreme Court’s Hazelwood case gives schools the ability to limit or censor student publications for speech that is not consistent with the school’s educational mission. Hazelwood provided the rationale for the censorship of The Falconer’s article on dabbing when the principal found the article was not appropriate for its intended audience.

“What is frustrating is that the December, 2009, policy gave principals all the authority they need under existing case law and the First Amendment to censor student publications,” Miller said. “The ‘editor’ and ‘judgment and discretion’ language was specifically rejected when policy was adopted because it invited violations of students’ First Amendment rights.”

Finn is in the process of drafting proposed changes to the 2012 policy which will be circulated to the county’s publications advisers for comment. The revisions should be in place by the beginning of the 2015 fall term.

“If the word editor attached to the principal is problematic, then what other language can we construct that gives him that explicit authority, but doesn’t have to put him in the role of editor. That’s the essence of the struggle we’re having right now,” Finn said. “From my perspective what we’re trying to ensure is that the principal has decision over student-generated publication of any sort–articles, the yearbook–when there’s a specific issue that goes against the specific mission of the educational institution.”

For now, Burton will not engage in prior review of all publications; and will only look at material that may be controversial or disruptive to a school day.

“I don’t see working much differently than I have in the past. Mrs. Miller will bring me things she expects to be controversial or that I may need to look at. As of now I don’t see myself looking at everything–that’s not going to happen,” Burton said. “[The policy] is all in interpretation. I don’t interpret it that way. If I’m told to do that [prior review], then I guess I have to, but it’s not something I want to do. I trust Mrs. Miller’s judgment.”

Superintendent David Jeck asserts the 2012 policy’s specific language makes the policy stronger and better defines the purpose of school publications.

“The 2012 policy adds more specificity, which strengthens the policy,” Jeck said. “Student newspapers are not forums for the expression of free student speech. Student newspapers are a School Board approved component of the school division’s curriculum with an ‘…. intended purpose, as a supervised learning experience for journalism students’ (quoting Hazelwood). Likewise, the School Board maintains complete control over all approved curriculum.”

~SaraRose Martin, co editor-in-chief